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Concern for Environment and Climate Strongest in Asia, Emerging Economies

Concern for the environment and climate change is on the rise in emerging economies. And according to several new pieces of research, concern is particularly acute in Asia.

One might argue that the research, highlighted in a recent New York Times article, found evidence to back up the theory of sociological post-materialism, which maintains that as incomes rise in countries so does concern about things other than those necessary for basic survival, like the environment.

One of the new pieces of research — an HSBC survey of 15,000 individuals in 15 countries — found that people in emerging economies had the highest levels of concern about climate change with Asia showing the highest levels of concern of any region.

“Climate change has consistently been among the major issues people worry about in each of the past three years, evoking a similar level of concern to global economic stability, terrorism and violence in everyday life,” HSBC wrote in the 2010 Climate Confidence Monitor (pdf).

Broadly speaking, the report found that levels of concern are greatest in emerging economies and lowest in more developed markets.

People in Vietnam and Hong Kong ranked climate change as their number one concern (30% and 25% respectively). However, in the US, France, and the UK, less than 10 percent ranked climate change as their number one concern.

“This year’s results confirm the trend of previous years,” the HSBC study stated. “People in emerging economies worry more about climate change, but they are also more optimistic that the world can successfully tackle it and are keen to play their part, alongside NGOs, governments and businesses.”

In another study, researchers from the public relations firm, Edelman, found that consumers from the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, and Mexico are more sensitive to the social performance of brands and are more likely than Americans to purchase and promote brands that support good causes. Edelman also found that individuals in those countries had higher expectations of brands to support good causes. Approximately 8 in 10 consumers in the emerging markets expect brands to do something to support a good cause, while only sixty-three percent of Americans agree.

“Brazil, China, India and Mexico have reached a tipping point in terms of economic development and their consumers no longer need to make trade-offs,” said Carol Cone, managing director, Brand & Corporate Citizenship, Edelman.

While the Edelman study dealt with social causes broadly defined, “protecting the environment” ranked as the number one cause.

“In emerging markets, the dramatic rise of ‘the citizen consumer’ has happened so quickly because battles over societal issues like natural resources and human rights have taken place right in their backyards. They understand purpose and want it to be at the center of their lives and their everyday interactions with brands,” said Cone.

Post-materialism or something else?

Post-materialism was first postulated by Ronald Inglehart in the 1970s who argued that rising wealth was liberating individuals in advanced industrial societies from worrying about fulfilling the most basic material needs. Based on extensive values data from the World Values Survey, Inglehart argued (and he and his colleagues continue to argue) that as countries moved from the “materialist” stage of modernization to the “post-materialist” stage, they were more likely to concern themselves with tolerance, participation in political and economic decision-making, and the health of the environment.

Some have criticized Inglehart’s original research for being western-centric, as it focused on western industrialized economies. And it is also possible that the causal arrow isn’t quite as neat and tidy as Inglehart and his colleagues suggest. Environmental concern in emerging economies may actually increase not as a result of rising wealth, but as a result of the environmental impacts of industrialization itself, exemplified by the concern for the environment in Asia’s industrial hubs where severe air quality problems are hard to ignore, regardless of the economic status of its individuals.

Article by Timothy B. Hurst, appearing courtesy Celsias.