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China Dream: a Lifestyle Movement with Sustainability at Its Heart

Jul 14, 2012

It is hard to imagine that China could one day lead the world in going green when you look at the smog-filled skies that are everyday reality there.

The government knows that energy fuels the growth of nations, and that China’s dependence on foreign energy imports creates a national security risk. People, both rich and poor, are worried about pollution-induced cancers in villages and babies dying from consuming toxic milk.

But China has ambitious targets in its 12th five year-plan to address energy, water, carbon emissions and forest coverage. But what it doesn’t have is a plan for how to engage the rapidly growing middle class in sustainable consumption of resources. The need to do so is clear.

China’s middle class will grow from 300 million today to 800 million by 2025 and the country could shift from ‘made in China’ status to ‘consumed in China’. In Beijing the 2011 sales at one shopping mall reached $1bn. Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of housing and urban rural development, says: “We cannot continue to blindly follow the American dream. This is simply unsustainable for China and the world.”

For China, this is no time for incrementalism. It needs to steer the emerging middle class to greener pastures before they develop the unsustainable tastes and habits of the western middle classes. This is not just about buying energy efficient light bulbs or fuel-efficient cars. We need to launch a social movement now that radically changes society’s attitudes towards consumption by helping them develop a different vision of prosperity.

I lead a non-profit JUCCCE that seeks to accelerate China’s sustainable development. Together with partners around the world, we’re promoting a new, aspirational lifestyle called the China dream. The China dream realigns success with a healthy and fulfilling way of life — living more, rather than just having more. It promotes a sustainable lifestyle, but is not explicitly green. It offers a compelling alternative to the American dream that enshrines conspicuous consumption. The movement is not a moral-imperative campaign with rational arguments for energy savings; it offers a way of life that taps into consumers’ desires and aspirations. Julian Borra, executive creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi S, calls this “the irresistible factor.”

To influence consumer behaviour, climate scientists, government, academia and NGOs should help ad agencies and storytellers develop a powerful message to show what’s HOT, and what’s NOT. If environmentalists used sex to sell sustainability the way automakers sell cars, people would be a lot greener by now.

The first step for the China dream is to work with creatives to develop a visual lexicon for this new lifestyle. China is ripe for this imagery. The Cultural Revolution ripped up much of China’s social fabric, and the Chinese have been soaking in foreign advertising images of luxury for the past two decades. If a new model of prosperity that is tied to personal success can be shown to Chinese citizens, they are more likely to accept it than more developed societies. In fact, it is a matter of national pride for China to define its own vision for its future.

China’s media landscape — with a few dominant mass media players and online platforms – has massive reach and can ignite new concepts quickly. The recent rise of megabloggers play a key role in allowing us to mobilise people who aspire to champion the China dream.

But no matter how powerful the imagery may become as an advocate for sustainable lifestyles, we cannot trust that consumers will make the green decision at the time of purchase. Studies show that consumers still need institutional guidance to make sustainable choices. China is unique because the government can help push behaviour change with local policies. Small policy nudges scaled across the country can have large effects; the banning of free plastic bags eliminated the use of 24 billion bags in the first three years.

Here’s where China’s governance structure can help change real consumer behaviour. It’s central government mandate can translate into local targets to go green. Mayors have the independence to swiftly experiment with policies. If these policies work, they get rolled out across the country and the cities get recognition.

China presents an opportunity to mobilise consumers in ways never thought possible. If we miss it, corporations will miss the chance of creating a customer they want to sell to in what will be the largest consumer market in the world. In fact, it may be the only region today where brands and government can work hand–in-hand to make real change on a large scale quickly. While China’s unique situation can’t be replicated in other countries, the exercise to rethink what is “prosperity” and what is “more” is similar to discussions around the world.

The China dream offers a new model of prosperity that can spark sustainable consumerism in countries around the world.


Peggy Liu is chair of JUCCCE, a recipient of the Hillary Step for climate change solutions, a TIME Magazine Hero of the Environment, and executive adviser to Marks & Spencer on sustainable retailing

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