Green Issues Are Gaining Traction With Chinese

But Their Concern Is Not Always Evident at the Check-Out Counter, Say Researchers Like Synovate, TNS, MPG and Landor

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Green Long March volunteers crossing the Taklamakan desert in Xinijiang. Roughly 5,000 students participated in this year's Green Long March, which spanned 26 provinces.
Green Long March volunteers crossing the Taklamakan desert in Xinijiang. Roughly 5,000 students participated in this year's Green Long March, which spanned 26 provinces.

HONG KONG ( -- China's rapid industrialization over the past 25 years has resulted in major environmental problems, including 16 of the world's 20 most-polluted cities, according to the World Bank.

Air pollution is a serious issue for two-thirds of China's 338 largest cities, according to government statistics., and causes diseases that kill an estimated 656,000 Chinese a year, says the World Health Organization.

Almost all the nation's rivers are polluted, and 90% of underground water in cities is affected. Half the estimated 1.3 billion population lacks access to clean drinking water.

Dotted with toxic coal mines, Linfen lies at the heart of China's coal belt. In China's northeastern "rust belt," Tianying is a massive lead production base. Chongqing, twice the size of New York City, lies in the so-called "furnace" of China, a base for coal-fueled power plants and heavy industry.

These geographic descriptions don't appear on postcards but are well known to Chinese citizens, who are increasingly unhappy about their country's poor environmental record.

Leveraging Beijing's status as the Olympic host city, a youth movement started in China. Over the summer, 32 universities and 5,000 students participated in the Green Long March, playing on the idea of Mao Zedong's "red" long march. to galvanize environmental change across China.

Over the past year, several research studies were conducted around the world, including in China, to measure just how much Chinese care about the environment and whether they are willing to change the way they behave, shop, consume and pay for products and services.

In this special report, AdAgeChina examined some of the leading surveys and found that in general Chinese are some of the most concerned consumers in the world, often surpassing Americans and Europeans.

That's good news, considering China's massive population and growing emissions. But Chinese are motivated by different concerns than western consumers, and don't always follow through on their beliefs at the check-out counter.

Landor: China's concern tops U.S. and U.K.
Thirty-one percent of Chinese consumers identify the environment as a higher priority than the economy, a percentage that is significantly higher than consumers in the U.S. and slightly higher than consumers in the U.K., according to a study released in September 2008 and conducted by WPP Group agencies Landor Associates, Cohn & Wolfe, and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates.

In similar research done earlier this year by the same team, 17% of Americans and 28% of U.K. consumers rated the environment as a higher priority than the economy.

"Chinese consumers are aware of the state of the environment and eager to play an active role in affecting not only their own behaviors, but also those of Chinese regulators and businesses," said Annie Longsworth, Cohn & Wolfe's global sustainability practice leader.

Chinese consumers also say their environmental concerns influence their purchasing intent. Sixty-nine percent expect to spend more money on green products in the coming year. In the U.S., by comparison, only 38% of consumers expect to increase their spending on green products in 2009, and just 33% of U.K. respondents said they will spend more.

Spending increases on environmentally-friendly products as they get closer to personal care products. Chinese do plan to spend more on cleaning supplies and white goods, as well as cosmetics and body care.

The way that Chinese consumers think about environmentalism seems to be tied to broader concerns about corporations, rather than specific practices such as recycling or using renewable energy sources.

"Chinese consumers want to do business with green companies," said Tatt Chen, Penn, Schoen & Berland's VP, Asia/Pacific.

"The more green a company is perceived to be, the more they think it is honest and trustworthy, innovative, has high quality products and services, and provides safe working conditions," he said. "Chinese consumers don't expect companies to fix all the environmental problems, but they do want to hear how companies are being good green citizens."

Chinese consumers consider technology, electronics and financial services to be the "greenest" industries, while grocery and energy are at the bottom of the list.

When asked what it means to be a "green brand," Chinese consumers prioritize trustworthiness, being environmentally conscious and working to cut pollution and waste as the three top indicators.

The brands ranked as having the best green initiatives or values in the survey were Haier, search engine Baidu, Lenovo, China Merchants Bank, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Nokia, Sina and Sohu.

Synovate: Environmental concern in China stems from different factors
China scores highly on actions taken by consumers, according to Synovate's global omnibus survey on climate change, conducted across 22 countries during the first quarter of 2008.

Three-quarters of all Chinese respondents claimed they bought a green product in the past year; 60% bought energy efficient devices; 70% reduced use of plastic bags and 82% cut power consumption.

But their behavior is the result of different underlying reasons compared to western consumers. Their behavior matches that of western consumers, said Darryl Andrew, Synovate's CEO for China in Shanghai, "but it has little to do with the western idea of 'environmentally-friendly.' Rather, Chinese people act green for two reasons.

First, they look to the government for guidance and the Chinese government is making decisions like power restrictions and plastic bag bans. Second, they have a very real desire to stay safe.

"It's a much more personal motivation, a pragmatism, or a 'making sure what I buy is not going to harm my family or me'. Environmental friendliness is manifested at a personal-benefits level," he said. Brands marketing their green credentials in China "will do well if they focus on natural products, quality and trust."

MPG: 46% of Chinese are eco-absorbed
In a report released in July 2008 called "The Impact of Chinese Consumer Perception of Climate Change on Business," Havas-owned Media Planning Group (MPG) found China is "actually one of the more globally aware nations in the world in the realities of climate change," said Paul McNeill, MPG's Beijing-based CEO, Greater China. China possesses a strong willingness to lead a more environmentally-beneficial lifestyle.

According to the survey, 46% of Chinese respondents can be classified as eco-absorbed, or very focused on the issue of climate change. Ninety-one percent agree climate change will affect them and their familes, and 93% believe they can contribute to solving the problem.

Ninety-three percent said they would rather buy products from companies trying to reduce their contribution to global warming--the highest score among the nine countries covered in the report.

Fifty-six percent of Chinese respondents said they would be more likely to buy environmentally-friendly goods in the next 12 months if they were the same price and quality as their regular brands; 38% would be willing to pay a little extra; and 91% agreed that tackling the issue of climate change means changing the way they behave.

GfK: 42% of Chinese list pollution as a top-three concern
A global study by GfK Custom Research in spring 2008, part of the company's "New Markets, New Consumers: Myths, Facts and Opportunities in Emerging Economies" series, indicated a mindset revolution is underway among Chinese consumers, led by the country's growing middle class.

For this group, preservation of the environment is a key issue. Forty-two percent of Chinese respondents cited pollution as one of their three main concerns, right behind recession and unemployment (both 43%). Just 22% of the global population said environmental pollution was a top-three concern. Additionally, 65% of Chinese car owners said it's important for their vehicle to be environmentally friendly, versus just 40% of the total global population surveyed.

TNS: Green is a tough selling point for Chinese automakers
Chinese car manufacturers need to speed up their efforts to offer trustworthy "green" propositions to the market if they want to successfully sell alternative energies and remain competitive in the future.

Chinese car buyers think the environmental issue goes beyond the simple notion of eco-friendliness, according to a survey conducted among 1,100 car owners and prospective buyers in China by TNS.

They also believe reliable and affordable technology is linked to a good green image. However, they rate Chinese car manufacturers very low in these areas.

While nearly two-thirds of Chinese car buyers consider fuel efficiency (61%) and reduced emissions (64%) to be important factors in a good green image, only 16% and 17% of those interviewed credit domestic car makers with having these features.

For 15% of respondents, the capability of Chinese manufacturers to provide reliable technology is rated very low although 53% of consumers consider this quality important for a good green image.

Forty-four percent of respondents associate Chinese car manufacturers with affordable technology. "Nevertheless, as the domestic car makers' only stronghold, it is insufficient without efficient and reliable market offers," said Klaus Paur, Shanghai-based TNS automotive director for North Asia.

"Recent efforts to develop alternative energies have not yet helped Chinese car makers improve their image and consumers still rate their qualities considerably lower than those of the more recognized foreign joint venture manufacturers."

Japanese car makers are best placed to lead the way in alternative energy solutions in China. They scored best in a range of green image indicators--minimized emissions (56%); fuel efficiency (56%); reliable technology (54%); and affordable technology (48%).

Unsurprisingly, a Japanese brand is perceived as the top "green" car brand in China. For every second car buyer (51%), Toyota comes to mind as a green automotive brand.

"Although vehicle sales lag far behind expectations, Toyota's locally-produced Prius hybrid car has pioneered the green market offerings in China," Mr. Klaus said. "Toyota has laid the foundations for success in the race to a greener automotive industry."

A Green Long March volunteer on the Sichuan National Treasures route interviews an original
A Green Long March volunteer on the Sichuan National Treasures route interviews an original "red" long marcher from the Maoist era about conservation successes in rural areas, such as methane gas reservoirs.
Marchers along the Grand Canal in Tongzhou, near Beijing. In July 2008, 2,500 students traversed more than 4,000km following the length of China's longest ancient canal while conducting water testing.
Marchers along the Grand Canal in Tongzhou, near Beijing. In July 2008, 2,500 students traversed more than 4,000km following the length of China's longest ancient canal while conducting water testing.

Chinese cities like Hefei in Anhui province are among the most polluted in the world.
Chinese cities like Hefei in Anhui province are among the most polluted in the world. Credit: Normandy Madden
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