Study: Environment a Tough Sell with China’s Consumers

By Laurie Burkitt, The Wallstreet Journal, APRIL 19, 2011
image
European Pressphoto Agency
Appetite for green? An electric concept vehicle from Chinese automaker Chang’an .

While hopes are high that China’s shoppers can help solve what ails the global economy, don’t count on them to do the same for the environment.

Such at least is the message of a new study on China’s green movement from OgilvyEarth, a division of advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.

According to the study, which was based on a survey of 1,300 consumers, less than 24% of Chinese people believe they have the ability to personally solve environmental problems, while 69% of see the planet’s future residing in the hands of the government.

That sentiment contrasts sharply with the U.S., where 56% of consumers think they can personally make a difference environmentally and only 20% think the government in more capable of protecting the Earth.

Believing they have the power to make a positive impact doesn’t mean U.S. shoppers always exercise it, Ogilvy says. Many Americans, the study notes, are afflicted with so-called “Green Guilt” – the feeling that, by purchasing a newspaper instead of reading the news online or plopping down for a flat-screen television, one has committed a sin against the environment.

In China, the study found, consumers are too confused to feel guilty. Despite weaving environmental messages into primary school curricula, the government hasn’t taught people how to take an active approach to preventing pollution or living sustainably, says Kunal Sinha, the study’s lead author.

“When clearing the air for big events such as the Olympics, people begin to learn that only the government can make the biggest difference,” Mr. Sinha said.

Then there’s the economics. Buying eco-friendly products simply isn’t a priority in a country where convenience is the main driver of purchase decisions, the study says, adding that most green goods are far too expensive for the average Chinese consumer. Where a regular eight-roll pack of toilet paper costs around 18 yuan, or $2.75, the average price of an environmentally friendly pack of toilet paper is 58 yuan – a difference of more than 300%.

That’s not to say Chinese shoppers can’t be convinced to buy green. Among those Ogilvy surveyed, 78% say they would rather be told how to change the environment themselves rather watching the government solely take control through legislation.

Roughly 50% of Chinese consumers consider themselves potential first movers when it comes to buying or leasing an electric car, according to a separate study by Deloitte released on Monday to coincide with the opening of the Shanghai Auto Show. Only 12% of American car buyers say the same, Deloitte says.

Thus far many corporations have failed to steer Chinese on sustainability, says John Solomon, Founder and Managing Director of Shanghai-based consumer research firm Enovate. “Messaging isn’t going to the consumer, because brands have been too scared at this point to address the environment.”

Mr. Sinha agrees there’s room for corporations to jump into the green game, but cautions that Chinese consumers can’t be made to feel that being environmentally friendly means cutting back.

”Chinese citizens feel that in the context of their history, they’ve only just started to consume,” he says. “After years of watching U.S. consumers fill up their carts, many Chinese are eager to use new wealth to fill their own.”

Chinese consumers per capita currently use about one-fifth of the energy that U.S. consumers use, the study notes, adding that the disparity is expected to diminish as China pushes for more domestic consumption. The country is already on the verge of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest energy consumer,according to the state-run China Daily.

China’s government poured $221 billion into a 2009 stimulus package designed to build a green technology sector and drastically improve wind and solar energy production.

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