On the surface, Chinese consumers appear to be some of the most environmentally-conscious consumers in the world. For years, high profile studies have praised Chinese consumer’s sustainability habits, such as the National Geographic’s 2014 Greendex which ranked China second globally for its consumers’ environmental behaviour, applauding their high public transport and scooter use, and consumption of locally grown food.
More recently, China’s Electric Vehicle (EV) adoption has been the envy of every environmentally-focused government, accounting for 49.5% of EV sales globally. Yet with annual EV sales growth plummeting from 126% to 2% over the past 12 months, largely due to the reduction of Government incentives, it is fair to say the purchases were more motivated by wallets and license plate quotas than sustainability concerns.
At China Skinny, we’ve been following consumer attitudes towards sustainability for many years now. Whilst there have been some hopeful green-shoots, overall behaviour is still at its nascent stage relative to most Western markets. This is reflected in the 10+ billion plastic-loaded meal deliveries a year, or the nearly three-quarters of residents in top-tier cities who couldn’t identify how to properly sort their rubbish for recycling.
Chai Jing’s raw 2015 documentary Under the Dome showed great hope for educating a population hungry for answers about China’s toxic environment, but its runaway popularity ironically saw every trace of it removed in China less than a week after airing. This stole the opportunity to corral the population into more sustainable behaviour.
On virtually every related research project China Skinny has done, we’ve found consumer responses are supportive of sustainable brands and products at a surface level, yet delving deeper into actual behavioural has found limited individual accountability for environmentally-friendly behaviour. Most consumers have expected Beijing to be the main driver for fixing the environment. As of Monday, we’ve seen the most significant step from Beijing to shift the onus onto consumers to act more sustainably.
From July 1, Shanghai residents must sort their garbage into four classifications – household food or kitchen waste, hazardous waste, recyclable waste and residual waste. Failure to do so will see individuals face fines of up to ¥200 ($29). Businesses face fines of up to ¥50,000 ($7,282). Shanghai has installed more than 13,000 waste stations, so far covering 75% of the city, and has replaced more than 40,000 streetside bins for different types of waste. The city currently generates more than 9 million metric tons of garbage every year – the equivalent of 1.5 million African bush elephants. In its quest to reduce this and make sense of the new recycling rules, it has used gags, memes and events with “performers striking forceful beats on tall garbage cans.”
Following Shanghai, another 45 mainland cities will introduce similar regulations, including Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. By the end of 2020, the 46 cities will invest ¥21.3 billion ($3.11 billion) to build waste sorting and recycling systems.
We only need to look across the Strait to Taiwan to see what an impact this could have. In the first 10 months of last year, nearly 60% of Taiwan’s waste was recycled. The daily amount of garbage during than period was 0.41kg, down from 1.14kg in 1997. When you’re looking at China’s scale, similar savings won’t just have a massive impact on its cities, but the world as a whole.
Like many things in China, Government-led initiatives are among some of the most persuasive drivers and shapers of behaviour. As consumers are forced to sort and recycle, sustainability will be brought to the forefront of consumers’ consciousness. Expect sustainability to be one of the most talked-about and thought-about factors of consumption in the foreseeable future – something worth factoring into your marketing strategy.
On the topic of trends shaping marketing in China, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner is joining CBBC for the webinar What’s Hot and What’s Not in a Slowing Chinese Economy on 17 July to share insights on trends and categories currently shaping consumer behaviour. Non-CBBC members are welcome to join. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.