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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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)