Consumers in industrialized countries are often lambasted for not doing more for the planet. And it’s true that public response to environmental issues in high-income countries is not as strong as it could be or should be. Study after study shows that mainstream consumers in high income countries aren’t quite ready to select greener products at retail or to scale back on creature comforts like private transportation or energy-hungry appliances– all choices that would have an appreciable effect on reducing personal carbon footprints.
It’s not that climate change isn’t appreciated as a serious problem. To the contrary, there is wide consensus among publics around the world that climate change is a pressing issue and that individuals need to make lifestyle and behavior changes for the health of the planet.
Yet the urgency of the response to climate change varies dramatically by country. A 2010 World Bank study on attitudes toward climate change found that high-income countries like the US, Japan, and France had fewer people who saw climate change as a very serious problem. Likely no surprise, consumers in the US lead the way in apathy, scoring lowest of industrialized countries.
These findings are echoed by the 2010 Greendex, a National Geographic index of environmentally sustainable consumption. For the third consecutive year, the US and Canada earned the lowest ranking for the sustainability of consumer behaviour relating to housing, transportation, food and consumer goods, followed closely by France, Britain and Japan. While a large proportion of consumers in these countries are concerned about climate change, their unease hasn’t yet sparked substantial behavioural change.
In fact, consumers have reached a point where they need to see more from business and government before ramping up their personal commitment to the environment. As reported by the Greendex study, there are two critical obstacles discouraging consumers from adopting more environmentally friendly behaviours: companies making false claims about the environmental impacts of their products and individual efforts not being worthwhile if governments and industries do not also take action.
These barriers point to an important opportunity for business and government to make pro-environmental lifestyles an easier choice for consumers. Businesses must continue building sustainability into their operations and bringing greener options to the retail shelves. Governments need to do their part by creating a solid policy environment that supports the creation and regulation of green products and services.
And both need to continue informing the public on activities and achievements. With tangible evidence of business and government contributing to the fight against climate change, consumers will be more motivated to take actions of their own.