Chinese Advertisers Aren't Addressing Sustainability

Government Funding and Consumer Support Have Not Convinced Marketers to Create Green Products, Says Kunal Sinha

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SHANGHAI ( -- Are Chinese marketers ready for sustainability yet? No, but the Chinese government is, and Earth Day earlier this month has raised the issue among Chinese consumers.

China is spending $221.3 billion, about 38% of its $586 billion stimulus package, to support green-related initiatives and infrastructure, including environmental protection, transportation and power grids -- more than any other country in the world. It's appropriate that China's government is taking such a proactive role. After all, 39% of consumers believe that it is the government that is responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

Kunal Sinha
Kunal Sinha
Where is the money going? Most was given to state-owned enterprises such as State Grid, which is investing $439 billion in building a smart grid using resources including renewable energy.

Is that an area where branding will make any difference?

Not likely, and multinationals can do little but complain that they can't take advantage of the green stimulus package at all, since government money is only heading towards domestic firms.

Consumers are also ready to accept, endorse and encourage more green-oriented actions by marketers. The trend is national and spans young and old, rural and urban, and rich and poor consumers. Between 84% and 88% of Chinese urban consumers say they try to avoid companies that harm the environment and profess a preference for green products, while 55% claim they use energy-saving appliances and 49% say they use renewable energy at home.

Are they telling us the truth? Of course not. The government's target for a renewable energy supply is 20% by 2020, and nearly 50% of Chinese people say they already use it. That's the problem with research. Ask people a question, and they would like to show their best face. In other markets where similar research is carried out, it has been found that the support for environment friendly brands is conditional on protecting the poor, especially in areas like water, heat and other necessities of life. This is a form of moral self-licensing which consumers often exercise to justify their actions.

In reality, consumers have a favorable attitude towards green initiatives but there are precious few options in the marketplace for consumers to embrace green with gusto and affordability.

Where are the really green brands? So far, they occupy a kind of rarefied space, both globally and in China, where their loyal franchise wears its eco-credentials as a status symbol. They stay at Urbn Hotel , buy cool clothes at eno , drive around in a Toyota Prius, and carry cloth bags that scream, "I'm not a Plastic Bag." Most corporations believe that consumers who embrace sustainability do so for altruistic reasons. The idea that the majority of consumers would jump on the green movement -- given the right options -- has eluded them.

Corporations in China still look at green behavior as helping corporate reputations or saving costs, hence a focus on internal efficiencies. They are not alone. A recent McKinsey Global Institute study shows that 36% (the largest proportion) invest in sustainability to maintain or improve corporate reputations, while 19% want to improve operational efficiencies and lower costs. More executives in business-to-business companies (20%) are likely to seek growth opportunities through sustainability activities compared to consumer-facing companies (14%).

Companies should make green choices easier for consumers through their brands, and some do already. When we stay at a hotel, for instance, it is easy for us to put the towel back on the rack and not toss it into the tub. It is easy to return used beer and soda cans to the supermarket and get a discount or rebate coupon for the effort.

It should be easy to change the default setting on a printer from single-side to double-side printing too -- but it isn't. It's so complicated it usually involves calling an IT department for help.

Let's stop shifting responsibility for smart green programs to the government or to the research and development department, neither of which is coming back with the right products, and let's stop blaming consumers' lack of enthusiasm for doing things today. The responsibility lies with marketers to make the right products at the right price today, because tomorrow will be too late.

Kunal Sinha leads Ogilvy Earth, Ogilvy & Mather's sustainability practice in China in addition to serving as executive director of discovery at O&M, Shanghai.

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