Guility or Empowered? New Greendex Study Reveals the Role of Culture in Consumer Behavior

A new Greendex study reveals an apparent contradiction in international attitudes and behavior towards the environment. On the one hand, countries that rank high on green consumer behavior also “feel guilty” for not doing more. On the other hand, countries that rank low on green consumer behavior (the U.S. included) also “feel empowered” that they can do more towards the environment.

How do we explain this apparent contradiction? Culture.

The Greendex study is a comprehensive measure of consumer behavior in 17 countries across 65 areas relating to housing, transportation, food and consumer goods. India, China and Brazil ranked highest on the Greendex in 2012 and were the most likely to agree that “feel guilty about the impact [they] have on the environment.” America, Canada, Japan, and France ranked lowest on the index in terms of green consumer behavior. Ironically, consumers in these countries felt the least guilty about their consumer choices but also feel most able to make a difference about the environment.

How do we interpret this data?

The study is intended to infer values from behavior, but does so in a rather rudimentary way. From a framing perspective, the cross-country comparison reveals deeper cultural views towards the environment than specific consumer-related behavior.

Rather than directly ask members of each country whether they “feel guilty” or “feel they can do more,” a social scientific approach that examines the underlying cultural worldviews towards the environment reveals deeper and more relevant insights for environmental experts and advocates.

Such is the approach taken by Willett Kempton, in Environmental Values in American Culture. Kempton looks at the underlying cultural models that orient American’s thinking towards ecological issues. He finds, as does FrameWorks own research in the area, that most Americans are concerned about the environment. However, the frames in which they think about the environment (i.e. Pollution Frame, Consumer Frame, “A Thing Apart” Frame, etc.) do not enable Americans to understand how environmental problems are caused or how they can be solved.

Knowing the cultural models at play enables us to understand how American thoughts and behaviors are at odds when it comes to demonstrating green consumer behavior. What we need is a new cultural orientation towards the environment, with a new set of values and metaphors for thinking about current environmental changes, in order to match American ecological concern with action.

We are currently working with National Science Foundation, the New England Aquarium, and the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpreters to produce new research on productive cultural models that enable the public to think more constructively about recent phenomena related to climate change – extreme weather and ocean acidification.

By paying attention to culture and telling well-framed stories, advocates can shift public thinking across the country to pave the way for systemic change on this pertinent issue.

Green advocates and experts can find resources on how to tap into productive cultural models for public support of environmental issues and solutions on our Climate Issue page.



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