Get going with Green: Closing the sustainability gap

In 2008, China overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, releasing 6.533 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, compared with 5.832 million for the U.S. China consumed 2,252 million metric tons of oil equivalent in 2009 in the form of crude, coal, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources, exceeding the US consumption of 2170million tons.

Government figures released that year were alarming: 70% of all of China’s waterways and 90% of its underground water had been contaminated. By 2020, urban China is projected to consume 20% of the world’s energy, and account for 25% of the growth in oil demand worldwide.

But the government has stepped in: China’s green stimulus, announced in 2009, is simply the largest in the world, with USD 221 billion – 34% of the total stimulus package – committed until 2020.

While the government’s commitment is obvious, it comes with a huge downside: it results  in most people forsaking their own responsibility, and underlines the need for corporations to step in and do much more to stimulate consumers to adopt sustainable behaviors including buying green.

The reality is this: there is a yawning gap between people’s claimed and actual sustainable behavior. We call it the Sustainability Gap. But if we used the data as a basis for marketing decisions, we would have estimated the potential manifold. When people claim they are being green, it is because they have the knowledge, but they often feel powerless or do not have the means to adopt sustainable behavior.

Over four months from July-October 2010, a team of strategists and ethnographers from Ogilvy & Mather’s  sustainability practice and consumer insights team, along with researchers from Enovate studied 24 families in Tianjin, Shanghai and Wuxi, spending time in people’s homes, observing their daily routines and recording their consumption and disposal behavior. This was followed by a nationwide quantitative study amongst 1300 respondents to both understand and measure the sustainability opportunity.

The study ‘Get Going with Green: Closing the Sustainability Gap’, which focused on understanding the difference  between what people say and do, has revealed the reasons why people are holding back. But this is no mere research article: it is a manifesto with clear guidelines for what brands, corporations and governments might need to do to realize a more sustainable future for China. It makes the case that, for corporations who manufacture consumer goods (as opposed to purely green businesses), green is not only a reputation opportunity, but also a business opportunity.

A set of 10 future pathways outlined in the report provide a blueprint for any corporation, government or non-profit that wishes to propel the larger majority of Chinese consumers towards sustainability.

1. Mainstream, not model: Encourage the mainstream green behaviors already in practice by Chinese citizens, including but not limited to bicycling, sleeping on straw mats in summer, and carrying one’s own water flask. By rewarding these behaviors, it encourages those who think sustainability is only for the wealthy or altruistic.

2. Products, not just policy: Highlight existing products and services that are sustainable, as well as manufacturing and / or transportation innovations that result in less environmental impact. By informing consumers, you make them aware of green choices.

3.  Every day, not just Earth Day: Focus on being green every day, not just Earth Day or Earth Hour; this is critical to overcoming the challenge of tokenism.

4.  Personal, not planet: Start conversations. If the world is to change for the better, it will be as a result of decisions that are made by many individuals at a personal level. Having a child is a critical juncture in adopting sustainable behaviors for nearly all Chinese families; and with over 16 million births per year1, that’s 16 million opportunities to start a conversation around caring and sustainability!

5.  Incentive, not invective: Build incentives for both individual and community adoption to encourage greener practices and purchasing decisions.

6. Choice, not constraint: Offer consumers a choice. A brand’s green credentials can be a tie-breaker if the price is comparable; so it is important to offer the choice at the right time and place.

7. Dialogue, not decree: Focus on dialogue. When engagement is based on compliance, people follow the rules and forget about it. When we want to continue the conversation about greener practices, we need to engage rather than command.

8.  Conscious, not conspicuous: Create consciousness about a collective Chinese good. Encourage families to ask themselves if they really need stuff; can it be passed on?

9. Collaborate, not confront: Collaborate with others. Partnerships can result in positive change. Currently, the green movement is plagued with more confrontation than consensus; but collaboration will help realize the potential of China’s green technology market, estimated at USD 1 trillion per year2.
10.  Pluralize, not polarize: Green practices divide people; the polluters against the victims; the eco-warriors and eco-chics versus the materialists. Make the case that environmental sustainability affects everyone because polarization solves nothing.

While not prescriptive, it is believed that these pathways provide an actionable dimension to what has hitherto been a rhetorical challenge. We propose to work with organizations through workshops and immersion sessions to help create marketing programs that will engage ever more Chinese consumers and lead them to embrace sustainability in their everyday lives.

To read the full study, as well as the companion study done in the United States, please visit our

1 http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_China’s_birthrate
2 2009 China Greentech Report

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