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Moving from Green to Green-Gilded in China

Hear “China”, and you think red. Looking at the smog-filled skies that are an everyday reality in China, you will definitely see shades of grey. So you may find it hard to imagine that China may lead the world one day in going green.

China is going green because it must. The government knows that energy fuels the growth of nations, and that China’s dependence on foreign energy imports creates a national security risk.  The raising alarm of pollution-induced cancer villages and babies dying of tainted milk is a common thread amongst people, whether rich or poor. To its credit, China has ambitious targets in its nation’s 12th Five Year Plan to address energy, water, emissions, and forest coverage.

But what China doesn’t have a plan for is how to activate the rising consumer class in a fundamental change in the way it consumes resources. The need to do so is clear. As China’s middle class grows from 300 million today to 800 million by 2025, China will shift from ‘made in China’ to ‘consumed in China’. Already in Beijing the 2011 sales at one shopping mall reached USD 1 billion. Qiu Baoxing, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development, in training mayors on building sustainable cities says, "We cannot continue to blindly follow the American Dream. This is simply unsustainable for China and the world."

For China, this is no time for incrementalism. This is the one window of opportunity to steer the emerging middle class to greener pastures, before they have already developed their tastes and habits. This is not just about a light bulb decision or buying a fuel-efficient car. We need to launch a social movement now that radically changes society’s attitudes toward consumption by helping them follow a different vision of prosperity. 

I lead a non-profit JUCCCE that is accelerating the greening of China. Together with partners around the world, JUCCCE is catalyzing a new, aspirational lifestyle called the China Dream. The China Dream realigns success with a healthy and fulfilling way of life— living more, rather than just having more.

The lifestyle promoted by the China Dream happens to be sustainable, but is not explicitly green. People don’t want green—they want green gilded. To offer a compelling alternative to the American Dream and Kardashian-style shrines of conspicuous consumption, we need a sustainable lifestyle that excites people. A green-gilded movement is not a moral-imperative campaign with rational arguments for energy savings; it’s a buzz-worthy lifestyle that taps into consumers’ desires and aspirations. Julian Borra, Executive Creative Director for Saatchi & Saatchi S, calls this “the irresistible factor.”

Fashion icon and eco-advocate Alexa Chung echoes this in Vogue: “Ethical Fashion: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic … The language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks."

To speak the language of consumers, climate scientists, government, academia and NGOs need to be partnering heavily with ad agencies and storymakers. It needs to use advertising techniques and peer pressure to show what’s HOT, but also what’s NOT. If environmentalists used sex to sell sustainability the way automakers sell cars, people would be a lot greener by now.

The first step in the China Dream is to work with creatives to develop a visual lexicon for this new lifestyle. China is ripe for this imagery. The Cultural Revolution ripped up much of China’s social fabric, and the Chinese have been soaking in foreign advertising images of luxury for the last two decades. Cultural change is expected as China improves. Every 5 years, China is practically a new country. If a new model of prosperity can be shown to Chinese that is tied to personal success, they are more likely to accept it then more developed societies. In fact, it is a matter of national pride for China to define its own vision for its future.

China’s media landscape—with a few dominant mass media players and online platforms that have massive reach—ignites new concepts quickly. The very recent rise of China’s megabloggers play a key role in allowing us to quickly mobilize many China Dream champions in parallel.

But no matter how powerful the China Dream imagery may become as an advocate for a healthy lifestyle, we cannot trust that consumers will make the green decision at the time of purchase. Studies show that consumers need institutional guidance in order to make sustainable choices. China is a unique regional test bed because not only is its society ready to embrace an alternate vision of prosperity, but also because the government can help push behavior change with local policies. Small policy nudges scaled across China can have large effects, such as the banning of free plastic bags that eliminated use of 24 billion bags in the first three years after implementation.

Here’s where China’s governance structure provides the key to unlocking real consumer behavior change. China has a strong central government mandate that local targets go green. Mayors have the independence to swiftly experiment with policies. If these policies work, they get rolled out across the country and the cities get recognition.

China presents a singular opportunity to mobilize consumers in ways never before possible. If we miss this window, corporations will miss an opportunity to create the customer they want to sell to in what will be the largest consumer market in the world. In fact, it may be the only region today where brands and government can work hand–in-hand to make real change at large scale quickly. While China’s unique situation can’t be replicated in other countries, the exercise to rethink what is "prosperity" and what is "more" is similar to discussions around the world. The China Dream may be a new model of prosperity that can spark sustainable consumerism in countries around the world. 

Peggy Liu is Chair of JUCCCE, the Hillary Step for climate change solutions, a TIME Magazine Hero of the Environment, and executive advisor to Marks & Spencer on sustainable retailing.

[Read more about Peggy Liu]

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