Green Products & Chinese Consumers: My Homage To Big Government

Interesting new study on Chinese consumer spending habits tells us something about the future of the environmental movement here in China. The study was conducted by Ogilvy & Mather and included questions about so-called “green” products:

Convenience is the main factor driving shopping decisions for more than half of the 1,300 Chinese consumers across China surveyed by global advertising and marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather, but 71 per cent said they would pay up to 10 per cent more or higher for some “green” products.

The takeaway here: Chinese consumers are willing to pay a little more for these products, but not a lot. Moreover, if a product’s major selling point is that it was a green product, that in and of itself would not be sufficient to make it more attractive than the competition.

Respondents were also asked about the relationship between consumers and the government when it came to the environment. In a Reuters report on the survey, the conclusion was that the government was failing to deliver on its promises of cleaning up the environment.

But fewer than a fourth or respondents said they felt empowered to solve environmental problems on their own, and instead looked to the government to fix the country’s environmental woes.

“When a strong government takes on so much of the responsibility, ordinary citizens and corporations lose their sense of initiative,” said the report, titled “Get Going with Green: Closing the Sustainability Gap.”

Respondents were nearly split on whether the government or individuals were doing the most to clean up the environment, the survey said, indicating that the government was “failing to deliver on their expectations.”

The government has a long way to go in the area of environmental protection, and it is not surprising to hear that people are frustrated. More intriguing to me is that quote from the report, which suggests that because the government has taken on so much responsibility for the environment, individuals feel powerless to do anything to fix the problem on their own.

I’ve got a big problem with this attitude, and it is identical to my criticisms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. It’s easy to say that government should get out of the way and “empower” consumers or corporations (or other actors in this area) to work on solutions, but I think that these non-governmental solutions sometimes run the risk of undermining public-sector solutions.

Are CSR programs a good thing? Maybe some are. Is it a good thing that some companies make “green” products? Sure, that’s fine, if folks want to buy those products.

But I’m with the average Chinese consumer on this: I’m not going out of my way to buy that “green” product, if all else is equal. For me, I’m admittedly just too lazy to deal with all of it. What would I prefer? Big Government.

That’s right. Let’s keep the pressure on the government to solve these problems. Perhaps I’m just a biased lawyer looking for a legal solution, but if Beijing passes regulations mandating that all products in a certain sector must be “green” (and therefore, in most cases, more expensive) that’s just fine and dandy with me. I’ll go to the store just the same as before, pay slightly more, and not have to deal with educating myself as to which product is better for the environment.

This makes me look pretty bad, but hold on a second. Isn’t this what the government is for? I pay a lot in taxes here in China, and in return,  I expect them to hire some experts, come up with environmental policies and, among other things, regulate industry accordingly. They are in a much better position to do that than I am as an individual.

Besides, and this was not mention in the Reuters article, a significant percentage of “green” products (also “organic” foods) in China are fakes. Am I in a position to test products, to investigate their authenticity and the claims they make in their advertisements? No way, that’s what the Administration of Industry and Commerce is for. Hell, not only can’t I tell whether the eggs at the market across the street are really organic or not, I can’t even say for sure that they’re real eggs!

One of my worries about CSR programs and consumer movements is that they might take some of the pressure off of governments. In nations like the US, industry is in a constant struggle to shake off the yoke of environmental regulation, and in fact they’ve done a pretty good job of it over the past 10 years. Maybe I’m crazy, but if multinationals pooled all their CSR money and lobbied the US government for better environmental laws, wouldn’t that be more efficient? I’m assuming of course that these companies really want to clean up the environment, which is arguable.

In contrast, here in China, an argument can be made that the government hasn’t been tough enough in this area, and therefore consumers and corporations need to step up and fill the regulatory void. I get that, but again, I hope that NGOs and consumer groups, which have participated in a lot of courageous environmental lobbying here in recent years, keep their attention on the public sector and don’t get sidetracked by private sector initiatives.

If consumers and CSR programs can help to make a difference, more power to them, just as long as they don’t interfere with my Big Government.