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Sustainable consumption in China: is it here to stay?

October 26, 2020 |   Ada Wang

In September, China’s President Xi Jinping made a startling announcement at the UN General Assembly, pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. In other words, the world’s largest polluter and energy consumer has committed to reach net-zero emissions in just 40 years.

Even before this announcement, there were signs that China is shifting towards more sustainable consumption, and that that shift is accelerating as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But is this a trend that is here to stay?

In this article, we take a closer look at some of the signs China and its consumers are moving towards sustainable consumption, and the other factors that may be influencing this trend.

Signs China is moving towards sustainable consumption

Campaign to prevent food waste

Like many countries, China has a big problem with food waste. According to Chinese state media, in 2015 the country threw out enough food to feed at least 30 to 50 million people – or all of Australia and New Zealand – for an entire year.

In August, President Xi announced a “Clean Plate” campaign to tackle food waste, declaring food waste “shameful,” “shocking” and “distressing”. The speech, however, lacked specifics as to how food waste should be reduced, leading to officials and citizens coming up with creative ways to tackle the problem.

Chuiyan Fried Beef, a popular restaurant in Hunan, for example, had started to weigh customers before entering in order to recommend dishes to them based on their weight. Major streaming platforms, like Douyin, have started to crack down on food influencers, particular those that do ‘mukbang’ videos in which they binge eat large quantities of food. The Wuhan Catering Industry Association has urged restaurants in the city to limit the number of dishes served to diners, implementing a “N-1” system where groups must order one dish less than the number of diners.

Yet in a culture where it’s considered polite to order more than may be needed, and heaving banquet tables are seen as a reflection on the host’s generosity and wealth, the success of the campaign is dependent on shifting cultural norms – no easy feat, especially with a population of 1.4 billion. Some experts say that without more specific guidelines or financial support from the government, they don’t expect the “Clean Plate” campaign to last long.

Growing consumer demand for green products

According to a report released by the China Chain Store and Franchise Association in 2017, over 70% of Chinese consumers understood and were aware of the benefits of sustainable consumption. More than 70% of interviewees also said they were willing to pay 10% more for sustainable products or services than non-sustainable ones.

This growing awareness of and demand for green products was reflected in a 2018 report by JD.com entitled “Trends in Green Consumption Development”. The report showed that in 2017, the total volume of green purchases made on JD.com rose by 71% compared to the previous year, with millennials accounting for just over half of those sales.

This is a positive sign that the sustainable consumption trend is not just being imposed by the government, but also being driven by the citizens themselves.

The "Green Stream" initiative

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to big increases in online shopping, many retailers are looking at ways to reduce waste in the supply chain, whether that’s by reducing packaging, encouraging recycling of used products or reducing the emissions emitted during transportation.

JD.com, China’s largest retailer, is a pioneer in this space. Under the “Green Stream Initiative”, which was jointly initiated by JD and its partners, including P&G, Nestle, Lego, Unilever, WWF and more in 2017, they have implemented a number of sustainable actions throughout the supply chain.

These include:

• adopting slimmer tape, which saves at least 100 million metres of tape each year
• reducing secondary packaging by shipping directly with primary packaging
• using electric vehicles to deliver shipments
• incentivising customers to recycle boxes and containers used in product delivery
• using its digital platform and logistics to track items and give them a second life, such as by donating them to charity or redesigning them into new products.

"Made in China 2025" policy

Made in China 2025 is a state-led industrial policy intended to make China a leader in global manufacturing – and sustainable technologies are a significant aspect of this policy. By 2025, China wants to increase the domestic market share of Chinese-made electric vehicles and renewable energy equipment to 80%. In order to reach these ambitious targets, there will need to be a huge uptake of these Chinese-made products by Chinese consumers – meaning yet more promotion of the merits of sustainable consumption.

Influential factors spurring push towards sustainable consumption

So what’s driving this push towards sustainable consumption? As with most things in China, the influences are many and complex. Here are just a few:

Disrupted global supply chains

China imports substantially more food than it exports, according to research done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and this situation is not likely to change given the relative shortage of arable land in the country. With coronavirus disrupting global supply chains, this reliance on imports was thrown in sharp relief.

One theory behind China’s push to reduce food waste in particular was to reduce this reliance. Indeed, in his speech announcing the “Clean Plate” campaign, President Xi told citizens they shouldn’t take the country’s food security for granted during a global pandemic. Similarly, China’s “Made in China 2025” policy may also seek to reduce dependence on foreign technology.

Garbage problems

China is the world’s biggest generator of garbage, and the problem of what to do with all this waste is only growing. With overflowing landfills and unsafe garbage incinerators only making the situation worse, it makes sense that the government is now shifting its focus to waste reduction. Food waste, for example, accounts for between 50–70% of China’s overall trash burden – another reason why President Xi wants China’s citizens to clean their plates.

Environmental effects of climate change

In President Xi’s speech to the UN General Assembly, he said, “Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warning of nature”. China is already feeling the effects of extreme weather events possibly brought on by climate change – earlier this year, record flooding along the Yangtze River decimated rice and corn crops in central China, forcing Beijing to release tens of millions of tons of food from government storage.

And this may just be the beginning.

“The melting of glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau threatens the Yangtze and Yellow River basins, which sustain two-thirds of the economy and the livelihoods of 600 million people,” said Dr Vinod Thomas, a specialist in climate change economics and former chief economist at the World Bank.

Coastal cities like Shanghai also face the risk of rising sea levels and worsening heatwaves.

Climate change effects like this can be economically devastating. According to Dr Thomas, “Between 1998 and 2017, countries reported $US2.9 trillion [$4.1 trillion] in economic losses, 77 per cent of it from climate change. The United States had the greatest losses, but China, Japan, and India were next.”

Geopolitical motivations

It’s perhaps no accident that, at the same UN General Assembly where US President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement while criticising China for its “rampant pollution”, President Xi made the ambitious pledge to reduce China’s net emissions to zero by 2060. Increasingly, China is demonstrating it can and will use climate change as a way to achieve its geopolitical purposes – including upstaging the US.

Sustainable consumption in China: here to stay? 

While there does seem to be positive signs of a move by the Chinese government and consumers towards sustainable consumption, as with many trends in China, these trends can often involve complex factors and take some time to properly develop. The good news is that experts say China’s ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2060 is possible. But it won’t be easy, particularly for a nation so heavily reliant on fossil fuels. And while they have made some steps in the right direction, by investing in renewable technologies, for example, experts say their current policies indicate they are not on track to reach this goal.

China is yet to release its official roadmap on how it hopes to accomplish this gargantuan task, so the next few months – and in particular China’s next Five-Year Plan, due in March – will reveal just how serious they are about meeting this target.

In short, sustainable consumption in China might not be mainstream just yet – but it is certainly involving that way.

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