Are Chinese going green?

Research suggests they are but actions say otherwise

By Published on .

BEIJING--China's environment is getting worse by the day, which is no surprise to the country's residents, who sputter to work each day through congested city streets and dense smog. But so far, they have been slow to help out at the check-out counter.

“There is a reasonable level of consciousness about the environment,” said Darryl Andrew, managing director, China of Synovate in Shanghai. “But the majority of Chinese aren't prepared to pay a premium for products which are marketed on an environmentally friendly platform.”

In a recent global survey about climate change, the Aegis-owned research company discovered consumers in some of China's largest cities show even greater concern about some environmental issues than their counterparts in western countries. The survey included 14,220 respondents in 21 countries.

For example, when asked about their “feelings regarding the effects of climate change,” 68.5% were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned.” That figure is about equal to the global average, and higher than the U.S., where only 57% showed the same level of concern.

Regarding the main causes of Earth's climate change, the answers given by Chinese respondents reflected the worst byproducts of China's rapid economic development in the past two decades: pollution (26%), human causes like land clearing, waste, population increases and electricity (16.3%), increasing greenhouse gases (11.5%) cars (6.8%) and industrialization (6.3%).

Their interest in environmental issues is encouraging, said Mr. Andrew, because “twenty years ago, the same situation existed in the West. There was a lot of awareness about global warming," which encouraged governments and manufacturers to play a bigger role in the planet's cleanup.

Their concern is also well placed. This week, China's deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in Beijing, Pan Yue, admitted publicly the situation is deteriorating.

China has 16 of the world's most polluted cities, according to Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C. Several major rivers and lakes are clogged by industrial waste, according to SEPA, and the country is littered with garbage and construction waste. Air pollution and the quality of drinking water has worsened in many parts of the country. These issues greatly concern the government, but its desire to continue China's economic growth, combined with a lack of technology to improve conditions, has limited its effectiveness.

In the Synovate survey, many urban Chinese also showed considerable anxiety about the environment as well as a willingness to accept some of the blame. More than half of the respondents believe one country is most responsible for climate changes, and nearly 30% say that country is China. (Although nearly 60% blamed the U.S., an even greater number of Americans, 80%, cited their home country as the main contributor in the U.S. version of the survey.)

Many Chinese also claim they are lending a hand, at least publicly. Over 96% of Chinese interviewed by Synovate claimed to have “personally done something to reduce the effects of climate change in the past year.”

The most common actions are reducing water consumption (77.1%), saving power (76.8%), buying “green” products (76%), and reducing the use of plastic packaging and bags (62.5%). Nearly 58% of Chinese respondents bought an energy-efficient device. Many of these answers greatly exceed the responses of respondents in western countries.

But they also exceed the actual behavior of Chinese consumers.

“Chinese are not becoming green,” asserted Tom Doctoroff, JWT's CEO, China and area director, Northeast Asia in Shanghai. They are becoming “increasingly aware of the linkage between environmental friendliness and economic efficiency and, as a result, advocates. But in China, whenever you talk of values or even morals, nothing hits hard unless it hits their pocketbook.”

Or their stomach, apparently. Chinese are becoming increasingly--and understandably--concerned about the safety of local food products.

The recent deaths of American pets that ate food contaminated with a Chinese-made ingredient, and the cases of diethylene glycol poisoning in pharmaceuticals sold in Panama, are “the tip of the iceberg for what's sold in China,” said P.T. Black, a partner at marketing consultancy Jigsaw, Shanghai.

Compared to problems with exported goods, the proliferation of unsafe or contaminated products “is much worse inside China. People here die all the time. In this situation, a 'green' product is anything that gives consumers some quality assurance.”

Another survey conducted last year by Jigsaw and ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty indicated that 67% of adults aged 15 to 35 in China's tier one cities would buy organic food, even if it cost 25% more than non-organic food. That statistic is reflected in retail chains like Carrefour, which have set up special sections for organic foods.

While few Chinese currently think green when they go shopping, their concern for the environment is an untapped opportunity for advertisers--as long as they act carefully, said Mr. Black. “Hypocrisy will be noticed and criticized.”

A handful of multinationals are taking the initiative. General Electric, for example, has launched an “Ecomagination” campaign in China, developed by BBDO Worldwide, Shanghai, related to its sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Beijing next year. Aimed at business executives in China, it presents GE as a global company that can help solve some of the world's toughest problems through clean technologies like water reuse, wind turbines, cleaner coal and solar power.

With support from manufacturers like Motorola Corp., Nokia Corp., and Sony Ericsson, China Mobile started a public service campaign created by Grey Global Group in Beijing last year called "Green Box.” The ads encourage its 320 million subscribers to deposit used handsets, phone batteries and related parts in special boxes placed in 150 sales offices around the country. The company is recycling the old equipment or disposing of it using environmentally responsible methods.

Procter & Gamble Co. picked up a coveted "water conservation” certificate for its Lenor fabric softener, launched in China last month. It was the first such certificate given by the government to a laundry brand in the mainland. Lenor softens clothes in a one-step rinse, so it uses less water than standard laundry products.

McDonald's in China has switched from plastic to recycled paper for most of its packaging. Starbucks informs consumers it uses recycled paper to make items like paper cup holders and even the business cards carried by its executives.

But many of these practices are part of global campaigns. They don't illustrate any conscious demand in China by consumers, most of whom seem content to wait for the government and big business to take charge.

“A lot of people don't have a way to get involved,” said Mr. Black. “They are waiting for someone else to deal with it, even though it's definitely an area of emotional interest among young Chinese, and far more so than other areas like poverty, AIDS or caring for the elderly and handicapped.”

There's also the question of which government should step in, said Ingrid Hsu, BBDO's Shanghai-based director of strategic planning for China. While China's leaders want to reduce pollution and other environment problems, “there are huge regional disparities.”

Beijing is being spruced up to be a showcase for China at next year's Olympic Games, and Shanghai's regulations for car emissions are close to European Union standards. But that's not the case in every city in China, where responsibility gets shuffled between local, provincial, regional and national bureaucracies.

Given the pace of change in China, a call for more green products could spring up quickly, producing a slew of sponsored recycling programs, conservation plans and roadside cleanup projects.

But for marketers interested in promoting the environmental attributes of their brands in China, advised Mr. Doctoroff, “positioning green as pragmatic is always the way to go.”
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