Society:

National Geographic's Garcia discusses new index tracking consumer action on climate

Where do U.S. consumers rank compared to the rest of the world in terms of environmentally conscious choices and habits? During today's OnPoint, Terry Garcia, executive vice president of mission programs at National Geographic, discusses the "Greendex 2008" that ranks the environmental habits of consumers in 14 countries. Garcia explains why Chinese consumers are among the most concerned about the effects of global warming and he discusses the factors contributing to the United States' last place ranking. He also explains the differences between consumer attitudes in developed and developing countries. Garcia addresses how governments should use the information provided in the index to help shape environmental policies.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Terry Garcia, Executive Vice President of Mission Programs at National Geographic. Terry, thanks for coming on the show.

Terry Garcia: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Terry, National Geographic, along with GlobeScan, has just released the Greendex 2008 and it measures consumers' choices relating to the environment. How does this analysis differ from other analyses that are out there that sort of tell us how people feel about the environment?

Terry Garcia: Sure. Well, actually, that is how it differs. There's a lot of information on consumer attitudes and individual's opinions about the environment and conservation, but very little information about actual behavior. So, what we did was take a look at how the average consumer is behaving in the marketplace in 14 countries. We talked to 14,000 individuals, approximately 1000 in each country and we asked them a series of questions. Now, we were looking for specific behavior and its behavior that we felt would move the dial so to speak, that has an impact on the environment. And we put together a panel of 27 experts, experts in sustainability, and asked them, okay, what are the different behaviors that we should look at, that if we follow them as a trend, it would indicate that we're having an impact, either good or bad on the environment? And they generally fall into four groups, housing, food, transportation and merchandise, purchase of goods.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, give me some examples of questions that you asked these people.

Terry Garcia: Okay, and this is an important point, what we wanted to do was just focus on behavior, not get into motives, not even ask them about, at least at the beginning, their attitudes regarding the environment or conservation. And so the questions were posed along the lines of how many rooms do you have in your house? How do you heat and cool your house? How far do you drive each day? Do you drive alone or do you drive with someone? Do you take public transportation? How frequently do you take it? Do you purchase locally grown goods or food rather? When was the last time you made a big-ticket purchase and so on?

Monica Trauzzi: The information was gathered via the Internet.

Terry Garcia: Correct.

Monica Trauzzi: Does that make it less objective, because some of these countries don't have as ready access to the Internet as others? Does that sort of paint a less clear or accurate picture of the country's attitudes?

Terry Garcia: Good question. This is a method now that has been used by a number of polling companies and by corporations around the world, and although it did require that the respondent had access to the Internet, we were able to adjust, in each case, so that in each country what we have is a demographically representative sample of the consumer, the average consumer in that country. We took into account age, wealth, and we were able to put together what we believe is an accurate picture of consumer behavior. Again, it's focused on the average consumer. So we're not ranking a country's performance or a government's performance.

Monica Trauzzi: OK. And as someone who covers these issues every day, I have to say that the results from China were probably the most interesting and surprising for me. The Chinese are among the most worried about the effects of global warming and they're ranked third overall in the study. Were you surprised by the Chinese consumers' attitudes and why is there this disparity between their ranking in this study and what we're hearing about their emissions that are continually growing and their use of coal?

Terry Garcia: Okay. On the latter question, again, the survey focused on the individual's behavior as opposed to government policy or industrial policy and behavior. We were surprised though. We were surprised with regard to China. We were also surprised to see that India, Mexico, and Brazil were also at the top of the survey. And, in fact, consistently across all of the four measures that we were using, housing, transportation, food, and the purchase of goods, less developed countries, or rather consumers in less developed countries, tended to rank higher in terms of leading a sustainable lifestyle. In China for example, one of the reasons, in fact, one of the leading drivers for their score was the fact that few people own automobiles. They are still using sort of self-powered transportation, whether it's bicycles or walking, a high level of public transportation use. Also, in the food category, in China there is low consumption of beef, high consumption of fruits and vegetables, low consumption of bottled water, and most of the food is locally grown, so that tended to give them a higher score. Now, what we noticed however, the one I suppose concerning or dark spot here on the landscape is that while people in China are leading more sustainable lives right now, and the same is true with other developing countries, they do aspire to a much higher standard of living. And in China in particular consumers were more likely to say that they aspire to owning a large house, they aspire to owning a luxury car. Now, the good news, if there is, is that in the attitudes, even though they aspire to these things, they are more concerned about the environment. They're more likely than, say a consumer in the United States, to say that they're concerned about the impact on their health. They're more likely to seek out environmentally friendly products.

Monica Trauzzi: The United States came in last place.

Terry Garcia: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: What are some of the contributing factors there and why is there this disparity between what people know in the U.S. relating to climate change and environment issues and what they're doing?

Terry Garcia: Well, again, it was consumer behavior. There are a couple of reasons for the score that U.S. consumers received. One is that consumers in the United States have larger homes. They tend to have nine rooms or more. They drive longer distances. U.S. consumers are the least likely to take public transportation of all of the 14 countries we surveyed. We have a high frequency of using bottled water, which is very energy intensive. We rank near the bottom in terms of using locally grown produce and foods, a high consumption of beef for example. And so, across all of the indicators or indices that we were looking at, we, the U.S. consumer, tended to lead a less sustainable lifestyle. And, by the way, Canada was only one step above us. And Canadian consumers share very similar attributes to those in the United States. Now why do attitudes differ from actual practices? It's hard to say. We were surprised that, or perhaps we weren't surprised, but that the U.S. consumer is likely than say their counterparts in Western Europe or in the developing world, to say that they're concerned about the impact of the environment on their health or that they believe that climate change is going to impact their lifestyle. I would say that at the bottom, sort of the bottom line of the survey that comes through loud and clear, is that it's about choice. We're going to have to obviously seek governmental solutions. Businesses are going to have to change their ways, but consumers as well. And it's a question of which choice or choices are we as individuals going to make, because it actually does matter and it will impact the way we perform regarding the environment.

Monica Trauzzi: So, how should governments be using these findings to sort of to tweak their policies and get their citizens to be more proactive?

Terry Garcia: Well, governments and businesses, we hope, are going to use this because of what it indicates. Regardless of where people scored, there is a desire to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. So there's a demand out there and what it's going to require is that governments and businesses pay attention to that and make available options, choices to people so that they can choose, because when you give someone the choice between a more environmentally sustainable product and one that is less so, they're generally inclined to go with the one that's more environmentally sustainable. In some cases they just don't have that choice and so that's the message to governments and that's the message to businesses. There's a demand out there, meet it.

Monica Trauzzi: What do you do with these results? What's the next step here?

Terry Garcia: Sure. Well, this is an annual survey now, so this is a snapshot for this year. It's not a one-time snapshot. We're going to revisit this each year and what we want to do is to be able to follow progress across all of these measures in the 14 countries and see how consumers are behaving. Are we moving in a good direction? Are we adopting more sustainable lifestyles or not? And where are the areas that need more work? So, I think that while all of these results are very interesting this year, it's going to become more interesting as we're able to detect trends in behavior.

Monica Trauzzi: Okay. This is a very interesting study. Thanks for coming on the show.

Terry Garcia: It's my pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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