Sustainability around the world: Spotlight on China
When it comes to global sustainability, no conversation can overlook China. China is the world’s second most populous country (after India) and second largest economy (after the US). It’s also the world’s largest polluter, in terms of current carbon emissions (although if you look at historical or cumulative emissions to date, China is the second largest, after the US.) We spoke to Yue, a Local In-Market Expert in Shanghai, to find out more. Here’s what she told us.
In the West, sustainability is often championed by consumers and businesses, but in China, it’s the government that leads the charge. Given China’s unique political landscape, this isn’t too surprising. The Chinese government has set ambitious targets, mainly the ‘Dual Carbon’ goals announced by President Xi Jinping at the United Nations General Assembly in 2020. Xi announced that:
- China would reach its carbon emissions peak before 2030
- And would become carbon neutral by 2060
- With a target of a 65% drop in CO2 emissions per unit of GDP compared to 2005
You can read more about these goals here.
To fulfil these promises, the Chinese government has implemented a range of policies and initiatives. They’re tackling air and water pollution, combating soil contamination, and pushing forward with initiatives like the Air Pollution Action Plan and the Water Ten Plan to clean up the environment.
However, China’s Covid-19 stimulus relied heavily on polluting industries, raising doubts about its commitment to sustainable development.
Consumer attitudes are evolving
Chinese consumers typically prioritise convenience over sustainability, but that doesn’t mean sustainability isn’t on their agenda. There’s plenty of evidence to show that Chinese consumers are turning their gaze toward sustainability.
In 2021, Jing Daily argued that the pandemic and its economic aftermath had led millennials in particular to reflect on their generation’s values and purpose. It highlighted a shift towards inconspicuous consumption and an emphasis on investment purchases in areas like fashion. Data from the Vogue Business Index shows that, post-pandemic, sustainability has become more important to Chinese luxury consumers of all ages, shifting from ‘nice to have’ to ‘important but not mandatory’. PwC’s June 2022 Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey revealed that 34% of Chinese consumers “often” or “always” agree that a business’s environmental actions influence purchase behaviour.
Concerns about air and water pollution, food safety, and other environmental issues are driving increased public awareness in China. Civil society and NGOs focused on sustainability are also gaining prominence. It’s more common now to see e-commerce platforms provide information on product sustainability, making it easier for consumers to make informed choices.
Planting trees through an app
One exciting initiative is the Alipay tree planting program. By simply checking the app daily, users accumulate points that can be exchanged for tree planting in China’s desert regions. My friends are obsessed with this, and I’ve planted a couple of trees myself. It’s a small step, but it adds up!
The plastic cutlery conundrum
Changing consumer behaviour isn’t always a smooth journey. For example, people are aware that plastic disposable cutlery is bad for the environment, which is why takeaway or home delivery apps (widely used, because they’re so cheap) ask whether you want disposable cutlery included with your delivery. But even though I usually select ‘no’ in the booking journey, I end up receiving them anyway. The restaurant staff chuck them in regardless of what the customer has ordered!
Local vs. international brands
Consumers in China may have varying perceptions of local and international brands regarding sustainability. Some trust international brands more for their sustainability claims, while others prefer local brands that align with their values.
China’s sheer population and manufacturing capabilities bring unique sustainability challenges. Consumers are often interested in products addressing overpopulation, resource scarcity, and supply chain sustainability.
Air quality is a key concern
Air quality is a significant concern in China due to high pollution levels in major cities. China now has 130 cities with populations of at least 1 million people, more than the US (45), European Union (36), and South America (46) combined. This has led to a strong emphasis on products and technologies that can improve air quality, such as air purifiers and pollution masks. As many Westerners know, Chinese people were masking up long before Covid popularised masks in the West.
China both leads and lags
China’s carbon emissions haven’t peaked yet, unlike the US and much of Europe. However, China is making significant investments in energy transition, particularly in renewable energy sources (mainly solar and wind power). Around 50% of renewables built every year are in China. The country is also investing heavily in electric vehicles (EVs) and public transport to reduce emissions from the automotive sector. The concept of a circular economy – i.e. one that reduces waste and maximises resource efficiency – is gaining traction.
China is still behind in sustainability and ESG standards when compared to other countries. Chinese companies receive lower sustainability ratings than enterprises in developed or even other emerging economies.
A multifaceted approach
In summary, sustainability in China is a complex challenge addressed through government policies, economic development strategies, and societal attitudes. Balancing economic growth with environmental protection remains a formidable task, with air and water pollution, carbon emissions, land degradation, and social inequality still posing significant hurdles. While progress has been made, there’s still much work to be done. China’s journey towards a more sustainable future is as intriguing as it is vital, given its size and complexity.
You can read Part 1 of our sustainability blog series – which focused on India – here.
And you can read Part 2 – which focused on Nigeria – here.
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