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Now is the time for brands in China to champion sustainability

Opinion

Published by:

21 April 2020

Author: Lee Folland

Image: Equilibrium by Uv-Zhu, China

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The spread of Covid-19 in China has afforded business vital breathing space to get their future-facing, local sustainability strategies right.

Before human life on Earth was figuratively turned upside down and literally forced inside in 2020, sustainability was already rising in terms of social realisation and consumer interest in China. As with most subjects, however, sustainability in China is one of extremes.

The air in cities can be nearly unbreathable, yet China has the largest network of solar energy in the world. As far back as 2018 – when we could walk outside without fear of our fellow persons – positive news about the health of people and the planet was already being trumpeted across the country. That year, China’s official slogan was ‘protect the blue sky and water, clean the land,’ with regular performance confirmations in the news, such as thousands of villages being scrubbed up, gas companies being regulated, and water being cleaned.

In the consumer experience, personal health and eco goodness are well entwined, meaning that brands have a multitude of angles to explore and express either their body – or world – positivity. Burak Cakmak, dean of Sustainability at Parsons School of Design explains that ‘every brand is talking about [sustainability] and from affluent or aspirational consumers, there is an interest in a change or ‘upgrading’ of lifestyle toward eating healthier. Being in a more natural environment and seeking products that are outwardly good for the planet, under the large umbrella of wellness. This all plugs in to the general idea of sustainability for the consumer.’

Frank Chou, China
'A link between the global pandemic and increased desire for anything considered sustainable is evident'

For both businesses and consumers, Covid-19 has altered landscapes and shifted paradigms. Next-level health consciousness is now apparent everywhere, and especially in China, where fitness app KEEP boosted its followers by 18% in the first five days of the virus outbreak.

New products have also been rushed to market that serve to soothe consumers’ desire to improve not just themselves but what’s around them. Designer Meng Yueming produced a jacket with enhanced ‘protective anti-viral features’ in February 2020, while local designers developed protective products such as Frank Chou’s sterilising lamp.

The link between this global pandemic and increased desire for anything considered sustainable and well is evident. Jiaqi Luo, China essayist, states that ‘the pandemic is a wake-up call for Chinese consumers. There has been a self-reflection moment on social media, as people thought the crisis today is the nature's punishment for human greed.’

One immediate yet simple consumer response has been the growth of negative reactions to livestream sellers promoting over-packaged products. Another is the desire for everyday people to ‘do their bit’. From Weibo (China’s Twitter) to local podcasts, many mainstream apps in China have created sections dedicated to Covid-19. The features range from accepting donations to supporting farmers by buying produce directly.

Forming a long term – and sustainable – business plan that combines sustainability with a quest for ‘well’ products must now come into focus for brands operating in China. Businesses must go beyond efforts such as charity donations and carbon offsetting, many of which are already expected tokenisms that consumers may not even notice. Research projects must be undertaken to map out where consumers are in a massive country and a vast demographic scale. And for new business initiatives planned, how can each customer easily share this on the key Chinese social platforms – and what will prompt them and others to do so?

While China is often painted as an intense battleground for getting the fleeting attention of Generation Z digital natives amid a mysterious world of whizz-bang apps, Covid-19 means brands have been afforded a little breathing space to get their future-facing, sustainably-minded strategies right.

Lee Folland is director of research at Reuter Communications, an integrated agency helping luxury brands succeed in China and Asia.

Amid the rise of Post-Pupose Brands and the outbreak of the coronavirus, we are being encouraged to consider the sustainability of the future. For more on how Covid-19 is impacting your sector, watch our webinar now.

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