by Timothy Curran

Perhaps surprisingly, the Greendex study which surveys 17,000 people, 1000 in 17 different countries, on their habits and attitudes in relation to consumer choices finds that the residents of developing nations of Brazil, India and China are the most sustainable consumers. France, Canada and the USA rank the lowest.

While these results may be encouraging to those concerned with how economic growth will affect the environment, they do not sit well with the environmental realities in these countries. Current individual practices may be more sustainable than in already affluent, developed nations, but evidence shows that as income rises in developing nations habits will start to mirror American and Western European behavior, which will exacerbate the environmental damage currently occurring. This reality is seen in China where demand for resources is soaring. Use of fossil fuels has been growing at 8% per year since 2002, as opposed to less than 2% in developed nations. This is in spite of the fact that Chinese are still far more likely than Americans to commute by bicycle. As incomes rise people will start putting down those bikes and hopping into cars, a trend that is already playing out. When that happens China will easily overtake Western Europe and America for the dubious distinction of being the top emitter of greenhouse gasses.

To get a more accurate picture of the overall environmental picture of a country we can look to the Environmental Policy Index (EPI) conducted by Yale and Columbia every two years. Instead of asking people about their habits the “EPI ranks 163 countries on 25 performance indicators tracked across ten policy categories covering both environmental public health and ecosystem vitality. These indicators provide a gauge at a national government scale of how close countries are to established environmental policy goals.”(from: When government policy, action, and the actual state of the environment are considered, the results are very different from the Greendex.

The countries of northern Europe, though they do not rank very high on the Greendex survey, have some of the most environmentally-protective policies and healthiest ecosystems. In fact, the 2010 EPI scored 6 European nations in its top 10, while the developing nations of China and India ranked considerably lower, at 121 and 123 out of 163 nations. Comparing the results from the two studies shows a wide gap between the actions, and stated attitudes of individual consumers, and the overall reality of the nation.

The positive take away from the Greendex survey is that there may be a growing awareness of the impact that lifestyle has upon the environment. If that is the case, maybe there is hope that citizens of developing nations will adopt better habits than the citizens of America and Western Europe.