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'Youth should lead green consumption'
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Ma Jun, 39, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based research group, is the author of the China Water Pollution Map, published in September 2006. He was selected as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2006. In a recent interview with China Youth Daily, he answered the questions on the impact of green consumption on the market economy. He asserted that young people should become the main force of the green consumption movement.

Q: For many Chinese people, green consumption refers to eating natural foods, wearing natural clothes and returning to nature. Is this an appropriate description?

A: That is only a part of green consumption. Environmental deterioration is a big problem in China today. Water and air pollution pose a big threat to people's daily lives. If wastewater and solid waste as well as particles discharged into the air by enterprises cannot be effectively controlled, (even if the products themselves are pollution-free), they will continue to pollute communities, rivers and soil and ultimately damage the quality of life.

A deeper definition of green consumption revolves around the idea that consumers would boycott any product whose production process damages the environment or consumes too many resources. People would get into the habit of green consumption in this way.

Q: Do you mean a harmonious attitude is the backbone of green consumption?

A: Indeed. China has entered the era of the market economy. The economic focus has been diverted from production to consumption, and this has become the center of economic operations as well as an important part of social life. Sustainable consumption has become particularly important.

However, the situation is not as we would expect or desire. In the process of acquiring this new economic development, people are competing with each other socially as they pursue luxurious consumption. Take the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, for example. People's pursuit of very swanky packaging for moon cakes now drives businesses to scramble after every petty profit they can achieve. As a result large amounts of trees have been cut down and large volumes of wastewater discharged to produce these fancy packaging materials.

So, a harmonious attitude in life must be the basic premise of green consumption. And it can only be achieved by mass participation. Desertification is encroaching on urban areas and garbage piles up like mountains. Governments at all levels, enterprises and the public should cooperate in dealing with the problem and establishing a green consumption mode.

Q: What obstacles have you encountered in the development of green consumption?

A: The biggest obstacle is people's lack of green consumption awareness. Deep-rooted traditional views regarding consumption have led to a society now plagued by high consumption beyond basic needs.

The other obstacle is a non-standardized management mechanism. Many products still have no unified green testing standards and authentication systems. Even if systems have been established, they are not effectively administered. Consumers have lost confidence in buying green products.

Meanwhile, a significant number of businesses are not facing up to their social responsibilities. For example, enterprises often offer discounts to persuade consumers to buy their products, even if they don't really need them. More and more natural resources are being consumed and wasted in this way.

Q: In your opinion, what policies should be adopted to help establish a green consumption mode?

A: We need to basically raise peoples' awareness of environmental protection from a long-term point of view and educate them about the consequences caused by over-consumption. Green consumption must gradually become a habit. The supervision and management system must be open and transparent, so that people can trust the authentication process or at least recognize the symbols of green consumption.

Some foreign countries have set a good example for us in this regard. For example, international environmental organizations have created a labeling standard called: Dolphin Safe. In the United States fishermen use the Dolphin Safe label on tuna they have caught using techniques that avoided the accidental capture and/or death of dolphins in their nets. Tuna can be labeled as "dolphin safe" if no dolphins were killed or seriously injured during the actual fishing process. Consumers, especially children, are more likely to buy tuna with such a label.

For a short period of time, we should provide practical and feasible modes for consumers to promote green consumption. For example, we are establishing "green supermarkets" in cooperation with some partners, in which products in excess of pollutant quotas in production will be clearly identified. Consumers hopefully won't buy them.

Q: What kind of role does the establishment of a green consumption mode play in sustainable development?

A: It plays a comparatively large role. With the maturing of the market economy in China, the focus has shifted from production to consumption. The current economic made has continuously stimulated consumption and that can easily become overheated. The endless pursuit of consumption can result in tremendous damage to the environment.

On the other hand, consumption can provide a tremendous driving force for solving today's environmental problems. For example, a change of consumption orientation would exert an important impact on production processes.

Consumers decide both of these possibilities. Their activities may decide the success or failure of environmental protection and the state's sustainable development strategies.

As the most active consumption group, young people should become the main force of green consumption.

Q: A recently published investigation report on Chinese youth and sustainable consumption reveals that most of them support energy saving and emission reduction but they don't know where to start. Up to 78 percent of the public puts the responsibility for environmental protection on the government's shoulders, so I wonder what you think.

A: As a consumer, one can contribute a lot in this regard. For example, the right of purchase is very powerful. You can make your money become a "green vote" for products with green, safe, and environmentally friendly labels and thus influence how companies take environmental actions.

We cannot shift all of the responsibility onto the government. What the government should do is to strengthen the policies on supervision and management, and create conditions to ensure that the public is well informed and can participate in environmentally friendly activities. There are still some problems existing in the current mechanism. Some officials have not yet mastered a way to balance development with environmental protection. It takes a long time to solve these problems. So the most practical thing to do is for each citizen to commit himself toward a policy to save energy and reduce emissions.

Q: Quite a lot of young people worry that participation in environmental protection and sustainable development may damage the quality of their life. What do you think of that?

A: The two are not at all contradictory. The current situation is that the world can no longer bear the bottomless desires of humans. We must consider the sustainable use of resources and encourage sustainable development and production.

You may choose a wooden floor for your home, but it should come from sustainable forestry; you may choose to eat tuna, but it should come from fishing activities labeled as "Dolphin Safe"; you may drive to go on a tour, but you should choose a mode using environmentally friendly fuel sources. You can still enjoy life by choosing environmentally friendly ways.

Enterprises regard young people as the most important commercial resources with popular consumption concepts and independent capabilities. So, they must be at the forefront of the green consumption movement.

Q: This year you and other environmental protection organizations sponsored a "green consumption choice" as a part of sustainable development. Can you give us a brief introduction of the green choice you sponsored?

A: We sponsored the green consumption choice on March 22 this year in the hope that people would pay closer attention to the production process in addition to product prices and quality. We hope people will consider enterprises' environmental protection behavior during their consumption, carefully choose products, and use their rights of purchase to promote enterprises that are demonstrating a commitment toward improving their environmental protection behavior.

We even named enterprises that didn't meet the state's environmental protection standards in the hope that the public would pay more attention to their brands and images. This could help standardize the market and create real market pressure.

So far quite a few enterprises have contacted us and revealed their plans to improve, others have stated a determination to change. In a market economy, enterprises care about consumers' choices very much. The real green consumption choice movement hasn't fully started yet, but we are confident of its future.

(China.org.cn by Li Jingrong October 29, 2007)

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