Aware But Unwilling to Change? Green Guilt Not Enough To Change Behavior

According to the National Geographic Society and the consultancy GlobeScan, Americans lag behind the rest of the world regarding sustainable behavior, but notably don’t feel that bad about it. 

The fourth annual Greendex report studied 17,000 consumers in 17 countries, asking questions about behavior such as energy use, conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the use of green products versus conventional products, attitudes toward the environment and sustainability and knowledge of environmental issues. 

The study reveals a distinct disconnect in how Americans view sustainability and their individual agency – Americans ranked last in sustainable behavior, with only 21% feeling guilty about the impact that they have on the environment. However, they simultaneously have the most faith in an individual’s ability to protect the environment. 

As well, many consumers in India, China and Brazil report feeling the most guilty about their environmental impact and yet have the least confidence that their individual actions can help the environment. 

Eric Whan, director of sustainability at GlobeScan, suggests that China, India and Brazil have internalized environmentalism in a way that differs from U.S. consumers. The findings lean towards a correlation between having a light environmental footprint and increased feelings of guilt and feeling powerless. "Despite their relatively light footprints as consumers, there seems to have been some internalization and a sensitization to environmental issues in places like China, India, and Brazil," says Whan. 

Purchasing power is where US consumers score the best with 31% claiming to prefer to buy “used” or “pre-owned” products over new ones. However, we might speculate that this is due to a price factor. Consumers in many countries -- Russia, Brazil, the U.S. and India -- were the most likely to be unable to justify the cost of environmentally friendly products. 

One key takeaway from this study is that the way that we communicate to consumers may need to be revised. A core argument that sustainable marketers often make for sustainable products and goods is that it is the right thing to do, or inversely, that by not making sustainable purchasing decisions one is negatively impacting the planet and society. 

Turns out that U.S. consumers may need a less altruistic and more individualized form of persuasion, such as strongly correlating sustainable products and goods / or sustainable behavior (such as recycling, or water conservation) with value. For example, eating organic foods may cost more in the short-term, but will minimize health issues in the long-term, creating a tangible value. Additionally, sustainable goods need to be easier to identify for consumers so that the decision-making process is easier and less prone to confusion. Consumers need to trust that a product that is labeled as “organic” or “natural” has been certified against a set of understood and trusted criteria. 

What the Greendex shows is that sustainable consumption remains a global challenge -- and that the attitudes of western consumers is diametrically opposed to consumers in emerging economies. The last few years during the financial crisis have been difficult and even in the west, where the average citizen still is in a greater financial state than those in the developing world, decisions about sustainable behavior and consumption will not be based on guilt alone. 

Have you ever changed your behavior due to green guilt? Let me know here or at @Measure4What. 

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