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Thinking about our footprints

China’s consumers are starting to think about what they buy, not only in terms of fashion, but also carbon emissions. Zhang Kejia tracks the growing trend, and looks at how to make shopping sustainable.

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“Wow! My carbon footprint is over 20 tonnes a year,” exclaims Ren Yafen, vice president of BP China. Ren is calculating her carbon expenditure online, and in a time when more and more people across the world are concerned about climate change, she thinks hers is disproportionately large. The current average annual carbon footprint of a Chinese urban dweller is 2.7 tonnes.

Offices in Beijing and Shanghai see increasing numbers of white-collar workers measuring their lifestyles with similar computer programmes, which calculate their personal annual greenhouse-gas emissions. The software is a simple way for them to work out how much carbon dioxide is released into the air through their choices of living arrangements, their travel and shopping habits. 


So why do people want to work out their carbon emissions? The answer is simple: the carbon emitted by an individual’s energy consumption is directly related to global climate change. Industrial production largely relies on burning fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Burning any fuel also releases carbon dioxide, whether it is coal, oil or natural gas. When these greenhouse gases accumulate in the earth’s atmosphere it makes it difficult for heat to escape: the “greenhouse effect”, which produces global warming and increases the risk of extreme weather and natural disasters.


Ren Yafen has a larger carbon footprint than most people in China, because she often flies to international meetings, drives her own car to work and lives in a large apartment with a lot of domestic appliances. But her type of work and her lifestyle is increasingly common these days. It is a lifestyle that is linked to climate change, as her extra carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. Scientists warn that if effective measures are not taken to slow the rate of global warming – and people’s lifestyles do not change then the earth may inflict terrible punishments on humanity. 

Ren says that her company’s management are already making adjustments to the way they work. They try to reduce business trips and international flights, using telephone conferencing and working online. They encourage staff to take the bus or underground trains to and from work, and those who drive are advised to car pool with their colleagues.


As in the case of Ren, the idea of taking action to slow climate change has started to affect the lifestyles and consumer habits of the Chinese public. 

Lowering waste, not living standards

“The actions of each individual can affect climate change,” says Jiang Kejuan, a researcher from the Energy Research Centre at China’s National Development and Reform Commission. But reducing the amount of energy we waste, he adds, does not mean lowering our living standards. We have to choose more environmentally friendly products, and to do this we need to understand how much energy has gone into making a product.

Jiang tells me of a Beijing-based civil servant who totally refurbished his home last year. He insulated the walls and installed double glazing, and in the winter he was still warm without even having to turn on the heating, saving a lot of money in heating bills.

“This is a very persuasive example,” says Jiang. Ordinary people’s lifestyles are directly linked to climate change, and it is important to learn the precise amount of energy needed to make an object – be it a sheet of A4 paper, a carrier bag or a pair of shoes. Once we have realised this we can start to think about how to save energy. For instance: students can use second-hand textbooks from their senior classmates; one magazine can be passed between many people; both sides of a sheet of paper should always be used for printing, when we see a new pair of shoes for sale, we can think about whether we really need them. Doing this not only saves money but is also a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle choice.

Jiang says that the centre is currently researching the amounts of energy expended throughout the lifecycles of various products that are closely linked to people’s lives, including toothbrushes, shoes, wallets, and mineral water. According to their reports, mineral water is 10,000 times dirtier than tap water. Of course, this does not refer to the pollution contained within the water, but to the pollution generated by its manufacture and sale; the environmental impact of something like mineral water is actually very considerable.

Jiang explains that while the mineral water itself may be clean, huge amounts of resources and energy are used in the production process: the water has to be extracted from the ground, processed, transported and sold. And you have to take into account the packaging, bottles, cans or cartons required – and the energy used in recycling bottles. Some water is even transported over long distances, wasting yet more energy. Once all this is taken into consideration, the carbon footprint of mineral water is huge; many in China would only think about the cleanliness of the water – and not the huge environmental cost incurred when it is produced, sold and drunk.

The production of goods for export accounts for around 20% of China’s total national energy consumption – equivalent to 400 million tonnes of standard coal, Jiang says, citing preliminary calculations. China is a major clothing producer, and he says that experts are currently looking at how to calculate the amount of energy consumed in producing a single garment. 

Making green fashionable


A young woman who works in Beijing on a modest salary tells me how she loves to buy expensive brand name shoes, and cannot resist the sales. But a young man I spoke to, on the other hand, opts for a more frugal style. Despite his high salary, he often buys cheap shoes from farmers’ markets or supermarkets. “Even if they break after two months it doesn’t really matter – I can buy new pairs in different styles,” he says. This way he thinks he can support small businesses, helping to provide employment opportunities for small stallholders.

It is hard to see who is getting the best value as a consumer, but in terms of energy consumption, it is easy to see who is doing best. Says Jiang: “Buying brand names is not necessarily a bad thing.” He explains that the amount of energy required to produce any one pair of shoes is more or less the same. But companies that produce low quality shoes tend to use inferior technology and older equipment, which means they waste more energy and generate pollution. Lower quality shoes also have a shorter lifespan, meaning the consumer has to buy them more frequently, using up more energy and resources. Moreover, the workers who produce low-quality shoes may be more likely to suffer work-related ill health – another big problem.

Jiang says that the fashion industry has the power to set trends and young people will always be the main consumers of fashion. But the key to whether fashion can be a force for good is to ask what is in fashion? In some countries, environmentally friendly products have become fashionable at all levels of society, not just among the wealthy – and especially among young people. In Germany it is mostly young people who drive energy-efficient cars. More and more people in European countries are taking to their bikes, and some cities that used to have no cycle lanes have started to build them. Some cities have bus lanes and cycle lanes: they are willing to slow down the cars in order to encourage people to switch to bicyles.

People have said that environmental ethics will really take root when people look at a high-emissions car and see not the social status it brings, but the air pollution it causes. They also say that excessive consumerism will be on the way out when people look at over-packaged or disposable products, or the new shopping centres that are springing up, and see how they could pose a threat to future generations.

The Chinese people are enjoying rapidly increasing living standards, and no one wants to return to poverty. But changing our lifestyles does not mean lowering our living standards. We can take advantage of new energy-efficient technologies and effectively make more harmonious lifestyle choices.

Jiang says that China’s energy efficiency is still far from international standards. If the major energy consumers actively started to increase their energy efficiency, China’s energy demands could be significantly reduced. If bus travel and business trips could be reduced; if supermarkets could be encouraged to stock local produce rather than goods that have traveled long distances; and if legislation forced new buildings to be built with energy-efficient materials, then not only would we be able to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, but we could also continue to improve the quality of life of the Chinese people.

Zhang Kejia is a reporter for China Youth Daily


This article first appeared in China Youth Daily 

Homepage photo by Jacob Montrasio

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



People need to change their attitude towards a "green life"

Chinese people of the older generation would think that thrift is a virtue. For example, they would not throw out their clothes until they are too worn-out to be repaired, and the small children wear their brothers' or sisters' used clothes. My niece's coat is even made from my mother's grandmother's cheong-sam! The elder people regard this as a pleasure, which saves them lots of money. However, young people today don't think so. They think that thrift means poverty and even when running out of money, they must continue to buy new clothes. And even the old house is comfortable, they think they must move into a new one. This is no good news. We think that being rich means being extravagant and the media also advocate this attitude. Thus, it worsens the social environment. To my thinking, we young people should change our opinion because being rich doesn't equal to being extravagant.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Sustainable Shopping?

There is no such thing as Sustainable Shopping. If somebody is trying to fool you and talk you into it - be aware. It is just a further differentiation of marketing strategy. In name of Sustainable shopping, the producers are going to make you believe that whatever they sold till date was exploitative to natural resources and what they are going to sell you now is sustainable to environment. It is just a marketing gimmick to make profit. Money is the motive and force behind everything. Don't be fooled by such things. Try to buy things produced locally, rather than buy in this shopping gimmick. At your cost a new company brand is going to make money - at the same producing costs.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Sybaritism of the Eight Disgraces

Chairman Hu has talked about "Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces". There's one disgrace called sybaritism: devoting oneself to a life of luxury and pleasure. This is a common desire of most Chinese city-dwellers. The nouveaux-riches Chinese barely know what to do with all their money. The majority of them don't have the character quality to match their wealth, which subsequently leads to a distorted attitude towards consumption. I have seen with my own eyes how a real estate agent, who had grown rich overnight, purchased 20 sedans at once and then had them parked in two rows in the huge backyard of his villa...

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



making do with less

Isn't it also tied in to how we spend our time -- especially women? My mother's generation also made do with what they had and made new things out of old. But my mother did not have a job. Now young mothers often are working and trying to look after families and they have to substitute money for that kind of labour. Maybe we should be content to earn less money -- which we often spend on things we don't need -- and have more time instead

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我不赞同污染, 但是中国每个星期都有两座新建燃煤发电厂,所以要求西方国家的人们减少飞行似乎没有什么意义。我不知道这些是不是真的。但是希望产品标签上注明的是“北京制造”或者其它区域制造的字眼,而不是“中国制造”,因为中国大面积相当广,很难知道是什么地方制造的。 Ben 英国诺丁汉

2 coal-fired powerstations

Though I disagree with pollution, it is often cited that there is no point westerners cutting down their flying, since 2 coal-fired powerstations are built every week in china. These cannot be nuclear. I do not know if this is true but I wish products said on them "Made in Beijing" or whatever the region, instead of "Made in China" because actually China is a very big place and difficult to find out about.
Ben, Nottingham UK

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Ben, 你将使用的产品是北京制造, 或者是产自于上海, 更可能是来自西藏, 这对你而言有什么分别呢? 这可能阻止你购用廉价的产品, 只因为它们制造于中国不同的城市吗? 中国确实在每周都新建两家燃煤发电厂, 其中部分的原因是用于生产你目前所消耗的产品!看看蒋教授所述 “出口产品占据了中国能源总消耗量的20% - 相等于4亿吨的煤碳”。不仅是飞行对能源的消耗,然而,你也得注意的是从中国所购入的各种廉价衣物对其自身和全球性的能源消耗及二氧化碳的排放量;但是,置身西方国家的你又能做些什么呢?就以你本身对能源的消耗和二氧化碳的排放量与中国人比较, 如此而来,你就可以获得更好的概念在于削减你不必要的飞行活动对本身和全球的意义。深感抱歉对一些脱口而出的话。Tao泰恩河气候变化研究中心

what is the point?

Ben, what is difference to you whether the product you are about to consume is made in Beijing, or Gunagdong, or even in Tibet? Will you stop buying and consuming the cheap goods from China just because they are made in different cities of China? That is true that China is building two coal-fire power stations a week, but partly also because the energy need to produce what you are now consuming! Look at Dr Jiang's words "The production of goods for export accounts for around 20% of China’s total national energy consumption – equivalent to 400 million tonnes of standard coal". Not only you are flying, so is your cheap clothes and everything else you buy from China. China should be careful about its energy and CO2 emission, for itself and the world; but what you in the west can do, is compare what you consume and your CO2 emission with Chinese people, then you might get better idea why cutting your unnecessary flying is meaningful to yourself and the world. Sorry for the words blurting out.

Tao Tyndall Centre