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.

“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