Peggy Liu: Sustainable Consumerism in China

Peggy Liu  刘佩琪, Chairperson and co-founder of JUCCCE, is an internationally recognized expert on China’s energy landscape. Below is her recent article on Solutions Journal on Sustainable Consumerism in China:
The Time Has Come to Catalyze a Sustainable Consumerism Movement

by Peggy Liu

In today’s global marketplace, with its ever-diminishing resource stocks, one thing is obvious: demand is outstripping supply. And here’s the conundrum: increases in living standards are tightly coupled with growth in resource consumption. We have all heard the dramatic statistic that if all seven billion people on earth lived like the average American, we would need five planets to support us. But as the consumer class in developing nations explodes, with China alone forecasted to add the equivalent of another one and a half United States to its middle class over the next 13 years, we are going to need to update that statistic soon. We must eliminate the link between the rise of the developing nations’ consumer classes and resource devastation (let’s call it what it is). It starts with reimagining prosperity for sustainable consumerism.


Difficulty of implementation is tied to collaboration required

Requirement for sustainable consumerism

Stakeholders driving change


1. Heavy-handed choice editing by retailers to guide consumption rather than relying on consumers’ values to drive them to purchase green (e.g., Whole Foods grocery stores)




2. Innovations in the way products are sold, including shifting customer value from “products” to “experiences” (e.g., Haworth Office Furniture)



3. More sustainable product offerings (e.g., Marks & Spencer department store)

Sellers, manufacturers


4. Better resource management in the supply chain, including circular economy loops between production and consumption (e.g., Interface/FLOR carpet company)

Supply-chain companies, consumers, waste handlers


5. Activating new social norms around consumption and fulfillment.

Government, mass and social media, advertisers, friends

Box 1 describes strategies for encouraging sustainable consumerism. In the first four categories, major progress has been made, mainly by a few corporate thought leaders. But we have a long way to go. In 2008, Caroline Savery, a consultant at Keystone Development Center, tried to lead a 100 percent environmentally sustainable lifestyle within urban Pittsburgh. She concluded that “it is functionally impossible to live environmentally sustainably today because corporations do not yet serve … sustainable business practices.”1 This is still true in 2012.

But the burden can’t be on companies alone to create sustainable consumerism. Only by vastly increasing customer purchases of sustainable products can economies of scale allow retailers to offer green goods at the same prices as (resource) greedy ones.

To do this, we need an actionable way to address the fifth and most elusive category: creating well-behaved sustainable consumers. We need a social movement that changes society’s attitudes toward consumption.

Getting into the heads of consumers and increasing their desire for sustainable products will require cross-sector collaboration to deploy a mix of hard and soft power tactics (i.e., government nudges and savvy marketing), activated in parallel.

A Green-Gilded Life

In his speech, “Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of the Commons Movement,” Adam Werbach2 says that the environmental movement has thus far failed because it has forgotten to connect sustainability to the aspirations of everyday people.

Any alternative green lifestyle needs to compellingly compete with the lifestyles presented in the Paris Hilton- and Kardashian-style reality TV shows—those shrines of conspicuous consumption that are the nails in the coffin of environmentalism. Fashion icon and eco-advocate Alexa Chung sums up the problem nicely in British Vogue: “Ethical Fashion: surely the least sexy words in fashion. Sustainable, ecological, organic … The language of conscience-free shopping is a clunky vocabulary that instantly brings to mind images of hemp kaftans, recycled tin-can bags, and other things I’d rather not swathe my body in, thanks.”3

People don’t want green—they want green gilded. To offer a compelling alternative to the American Dream, we need a sustainable lifestyle that excites people. It shouldn’t ignore alarming statistics or the need for sacrifice, but it shouldn’t make these statistics the center of its marketing campaign. A green-gilded movement is not a moral-imperative campaign for energy savings, waste reduction, or dealing with the water crisis; it’s a buzz-worthy lifestyle that taps into consumers’ desires and aspirations. It is a campaign that taps into people’s deepest fears of not fitting in—showing what’s cool, but also what’s not. It speaks in a currency that the average person can understand—whether it’s sex, health, jobs, or iPads.

Start with the Developing World’s Emerging Middle Class

The real hope of sustainable consumerism is that China, India, and the other gargantuan developing nations will actively choose a different path than the industrialized countries.  Here is where dreams have not been cemented, and people are eager to absorb new ideas. The change required will not be easy, but history points to other places—such as Japan, Taiwan, and Germany—that have successfully decoupled rising gross domestic product (GDP) and energy use 

For China, the moment for such change is upon us. According to Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream,4 China’s middle class will grow to 800 million by 2025. As Group M’s YouTube video, Unholdable China, says, “China is shifting from ‘made in China’ to ‘consumed in China’ and it is changing the world. Every three days, two new Starbucks open in China. In Beijing the sales at one shopping mall reached RMB 6B [about U.S.$1 billion] in 2011.”5 And China’s emissions are on track to equal those of the United States in just five short years, by 2017.

The good news is that China’s central government understands the need to find a new, greener path. Xie Zhenhua, China’s minister for climate policy, rightly notes that “if we allow China’s per capita carbon emissions to rise to U.S. levels, it will be a disaster for the world.”6 China is continually improving its energy and environmental policies and is actively searching internationally for best practices. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (see Box 2) has ambitious targets for resource and environmental protection. City officials’ careers are tied to their ability to meet these targets, so they are extremely motivated to try consumption-shaping policies that can be implemented locally.

Box 2. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan

Energy: Cut energy intensity by 16 percent per unit of GDP, increase non–fossil fuel energy sources from 8.3 percent to 11.4 percent of primary energy consumption.

Pollution: Cut carbon intensity 17 percent per unit of GDP, reduce sulfur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand by 8 percent, reduce ammonia nitrogen and nitrogen oxides by 10 percent.

Water: Cut water intensity per unit of value-added industrial output by 30 percent by 2015.

Forestry: Increase forests by 600 million cubic meters and forest cover to 21.66 percent.17

Are China’s efforts to increase domestic consumption at odds with sustainability goals? Not necessarily, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the Economist’s Shanghai bureau chief and China business editor. He contends that “in macroeconomic terms, it is uncontroversial to observe that China grossly overinvests [in infrastructure] and [its citizens] underconsume, so increasing consumption per se is not bad. What matters is the quality of the consumption.”7 As Chinese consumers start to spend more money, we need to ensure that they avoid the trap of cheap disposables, resource-greedy goods, and wasteful splurging and instead buy higher-value sustainable products and services.

As a regional testbed for sustainable consumerism, China’s unique dynamics present a singular opportunity to mobilize consumers in ways never before possible. China is under huge pressure to change; it has the willingness and persistence to change; and it can use government and social-media levers to activate the masses at a large scale. But the window of opportunity for a new lifestyle to take hold won’t last forever. If we wait too long, the emerging middle class will have already developed their tastes and habits. It will be too late to steer the masses to greener pastures 

The China Dream 

I lead the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, or JUCCCE, a nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate the greening of China. JUCCCE is seizing this moment to catalyze a new, sustainable lifestyle in China through the China Dream campaign.8 The goal of the China Dream is no less than to reimagine prosperity arising from a healthy and fulfilling way of life. Status symbols must be realigned around living more rather than just having more. The lifestyle promoted by the China Dream happens to be sustainable, but the campaign does not mention sustainability directly. It does this on purpose.

At the heart of the initiative is an actionable framework for changing consumer habits en masse. While we can’t change human nature, we can change social norms for what is desirable and acceptable behavior and also for what is not. The China Dream incorporates parallel efforts to use peer pressure and new government policies to create widespread desire for a sustainable life.

The China Dream framework is a collaborative effort between JUCCCE, Marks & Spencer, the World Economic Forum’s New Energy Architecture Global Agenda Council, the Urban China Initiative, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Real Pegasus (Edelman China), WPP, Saatchi & Saatchi, and other experts. The bulk of the initiative will take place over three years, starting in late 2012.

Crafting a Different Dream

The China Dream seeks to change the social context of consumer decisions. It will involve developing and seeding imagery for a new lifestyle, leveraging mass media and mobile technology. In retail-speak, this is “choice influencing.” But instead of marketers acting individually to sell products, the China Dream will require companies, ad agency creatives and planners, scriptwriters, bloggers, role models, and the press to work in unison to champion sustainable consumerism.

First, JUCCCE will work with creative directors to gather a visual lexicon to define the China Dream. This carefully edited imagery will express a better China—in the way that Norman Rockwell’s iconic Saturday Evening Post images evoked the hopes and aspirations of America. The consistency of Rockwell’s images over four decades created visual stories that led filmmaker Steven Spielberg to praise the artist for painting the American dream “better than anyone.”9

China is ripe for this imagery. The Cultural Revolution broke up much of China’s social fabric, and the Chinese have been soaking in foreign advertising images of luxury for the last two decades. Today the China Dream is a vision that doesn’t yet exist, but it is a matter of pride for China to define its own vision for its future. Qiu Baoxing, the vice minister of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development, opened a mayoral training session on sustainable urbanization by saying, “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American Dream. This is simply unsustainable for China and the world.”10 The new China Dream can tap into traditional Chinese values that are closely aligned with sustainability—personal health, face (respect), harmony with nature, and avoiding waste. 

One of China Dream’s advisors, Kaiser Kuo, who is director of international communications for the Chinese search engine Baidu, has been adamant that the China Dream imagery shouldn’t just show the good-looking, healthy guy stepping off a high-speed rail train with a briefcase. It also needs to lambaste the plump, balding guy with a cigarette and gold chains stepping out of a gas-guzzling Hummer. Because “what’s not” sets social norms as much as “what’s hot.”

Go Big, Go Quickly

Ultimately, the success of the China Dream hinges on mobilizing multistakeholder collaboration to activate consumers within a short time frame, to create the culture shift that the China Dream calls for. “To make a behavioral switch, people need to start hearing the same message frequently from the community they trust,” advises danah boyd, an academic expert on the intersections between social media and society at Microsoft Research. “This creates cultural resonance, which makes it easier for people to flip the switch. But time lag is dangerous. Activation needs to happen quickly or the idea will lose momentum.”11

Technology enables us to quickly mobilize the masses around new concepts. What we need is a revolution—not just awareness—and recent history shows us that social media is a major enabler of change. At a dinner at Davos, Thomas Friedman12 of The New York Times pointed out that it has only been a short six years in which we have seen the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Sina Weibo, and other massive online digital platforms. It’s not uncommon for bloggers in China to have 1 to 3 million followers. The top user on Sina Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—has 18 million followers. 

The strength of this mobile platform for shaping social norms and spreading new concepts can’t be underestimated: Twitter took four years to reach 100 million users. It took Sina Weibo 1.5 years to reach that milestone. Social media in China—if used effectively to recruit these megabloggers, as the China Dream champions—could play a significant role in ensuring the success of the China Dream project.

Learning from Hollywood

The second lever to incorporate China Dream imagery into the fabric of mainstream society consists of entertainment programs made for TV and online portals. For this stage, we at JUCCCE will take a page from Hollywood, Health & Society (HHS),13 a joint project of the Norman Lear Center at University of Southern California–Annenberg and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HHS works with experts from government, academia, and nonprofits to consult with TV writers on health issues in storylines.

“Every day millions of viewers worldwide learn something new about health from TV storylines and take action on what they’ve learned,” says director Sandra de Castro Buffington.14 “Recognizing the profound impact of TV storylines on health knowledge, attitudes and behavior,” she says, HHS works with writers and producers to weave accurate health messages into their storytelling. In a similar way, the China Dream project can work with TV writers and top Web portals in China to weave imagery about sustainable consumerism into entertainment.

Nudging Behavior through Policies

Desire alone won’t create sustainable behavior. Studies show that consumers need institutional guidance in order to make sustainable choices. In the absence of a strong government push, public-service marketing campaigns can fall largely on deaf ears. 

The China Dream effort will introduce local government policies that shape consumer behavior toward sustainable choices at the point of purchase or during product use. The concept of “nudges,” introduced to me at the Harvard Kennedy School by Professor Iris Bohnet, inspired me to look at policies such as refunds for bringing your own cup to the coffee shop, green office-procurement policies, and unit-pricing programs for residential waste collection. Culturally specific policies, such as mandating mooncake gifts to be in the form of gift certificates rather than heavily regifted packages, are particularly ripe for exploration (small changes, enacted on a large scale, add up).

China’s nimble government structure is an advantage in that cities are able to quickly pilot policies that get scaled up to the national level if they are effective. Witness China’s banning of free plastic bags at grocery stores. This was initially tried in a couple of cities before being introduced nationwide in 2008. In the first three years after that, China reduced usage by 24 billion bags.15

JUCCCE is working with researchers to come up with consumption-shaping policy recommendations that make sense for China and that are easy to implement within the average three- to four-year time frame of one mayor’s tenure. JUCCCE will leverage our mayoral training arm,16 which is based on mandatory annual retraining for government officials, to distribute these recommendations across the country and to identify pilot cities. China’s mayors are motivated to experiment with local policies in order to meet their local 12th Five-Year Plan targets and, possibly, to obtain one of a variety of “sustainable model city” designations by the national government.

To China and Beyond (Or, It’s Time to Collaborate or Croak) 

The truth is, few sustainable-consumerism campaigns have succeeded to date. But the elements that can enable societal change are now aligning. For one thing, people are more open than ever to a lifestyle change. The current economic squeeze leaves consumers eager for alternatives to conspicuous consumption. As a result, governments are working with NGOs to look beyond GDP growth to “sustainability indices” and “happiness indices.” 

And, second, consumer-facing CEOs are getting more earnest about working together on driving consumer demand for sustainable products. I presented the China Dream project at a series of World Economic Forum sessions in Abu Dhabi and Davos to company titans from Marks & Spencer, Kingfisher, TESCO, DESSO, Nike, and others, and I noticed a clear expansion in corporate talk from supply-chain sustainability to how best to engage consumers in social change. 

These two factors, together with the rise in social media and the unique conditions in China that prime that country for a change, mean that this is our moment. In the year of Rio+20, we have for the first time an opportunity to activate sustainable consumerism at a large scale. We have openness to change, bourgeoning corporate-consumer engagement, large-scale digital activation, and China as a test bed.

But we only have one chance to engage the emerging middle classes in China and India while they are still searching for a vision of prosperity. If we miss this window, corporations will miss the opportunity to create the customer they want to sell to.

So let’s use this platform of Rio+20 to jointly commit resources to this effort. If we succeed, the China Dream is a framework that can show how sustainable consumerism can be created in countries around the world.


1. Savery, C. Widespread sustainable consumerism is more vital than taking individual actions. Sustainablog [online] (July 31, 2008).

2. Meyer, J. Does environmentalism have a future? Dissent Magazine [online] (Spring 2005).


3. Chung, A. Special supplement on ethical fashion. Vogue (April 2012).


4. Wang, H. The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You (Bestseller Press, 2010).

5. Group M. Unholdable China. YouTube [online] (2012).

6. Black, R. China ‘won’t follow US’ on carbon emissions. BBC News [online] (October 25, 2011).


7. Vaitheeswaran, V. Personal communication (March 2012).


8. China Dream. JUCCCE [online] (2012).


9. PBS (American Masters). Norman Rockwell [online] (2006).


10. Baoxing, Q. Speech given at a JUCCCE mayoral training program at the Mayoral Training Academy for Mayors of China (May 2009).


11. boyd, d.  Personal communication (March 2012).


12. Friedman, T. Personal communication (January 2012).


13. Hollywood, Health & Society. Norman Lear Center [online] (2012).


14. Heasley, S. ‘Parenthood’ honored for Asperberger’s storyline. Disability Scoop [online] (August 26, 2011).


15. Liu, P. China as the cleantech laboratory of the world. TEDxTalks on YouTube [online] (2010).


16. Mayoral training. JUCCCE [online] (2012).


17. Seligsohn, D & Hsu, A. How does China’s 12th Five-Year Plan address energy and the environment? World Resources Institute [online] (March 7, 2011).

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