Cooler living for China’s youth?

How do Chinese young people feel about sustainable living? China Youth Daily, a major Chinese newspaper, recently carried out a ground-breaking survey of opinions about climate change and the environment; chinadialogue presents the results.

China’s rapid economic development has materially enriched the lives of ordinary Chinese people, and at the same time increased our demands as consumers. But for how long will limited resources be able to bear the burden of our unlimited desires? Do we – especially the young people who are leading the charge of consumerism – really have enough of an understanding of the principles of sustainable consumption? Do we really want to put these principles into practice? And how can we spread these ideas?

We hope that this survey can achieve two main goals: to raise public awareness of sustainable consumption through a process of interaction, and to reveal attitudes to consumption among the public, the youth in particular. Media reports and public events that follow from the survey will enable larger numbers of people to come into contact with ideas of sustainable consumption, and integrate the ideas into their own lives.

Our method

Participants in the survey came from 31 provinces, provincial-level cities and autonomous regions of China, and mostly comprised young people from medium-sized and large cities. The average age was 30.1; the age bracket of 21 to 40 accounted for 80% of participants.

The average salary was quite high, with those in work earning an average of 2,977 yuan (US$393) per month. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the average income in Beijing is 2,006 yuan (US$265) a month – the highest in the country. The survey included participants from all income levels, with those in the 1,000 to 3,000 yuan (US$132-396) per month salary range accounting for 38%, and those with a high income of over 5,000 yuan (US$661) per month making up 14% of the total.

The survey used two methods of collecting data: asking people to fill in forms voluntarily and face-to-face interviews. The survey forms were included in the China Youth Daily financial section on April 10, 2007, and reached 5 million readers across China. The forms were also made available online at, and many other websites carried links to the survey. Face-to-face interviews were carried out in areas with a high density of office buildings in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Tianjin. This was done in order to target young urban office workers, who would not otherwise actively participate in surveys; 500 interviews were conducted in this way.

Within two weeks of the survey being published nationwide, nearly 10,000 people had taken part in some way. Respondents came from all regions, were of all different ages and had different income levels and careers. This was an early sign that there is widespread support for sustainable consumption and environmental participation among young people in China, and there is a good base for the introduction of environmental policies and education.

By the end of the survey we had received 2500 completed forms, including 1000 that were published in the paper and sent in, 1000 filled in online, and 500 completed during face-to-face interviews.

Public awareness of climate change

There is a high level of awareness of climate change among young people: the survey showed that almost eight out of 10 understood the issue and were concerned about it. Only two out of 10 consumers misunderstood the problem, knew nothing about it, or said that they did not care about it. The vast majority of participants agreed with the statements, “climate change will cause rising sea levels and a reduction in land area” and “some coastal cities and islands may disappear”. However, only 55% agreed that climate change will bring about the extinction of the polar bear. Only 5% of participants stated that they did not know about the potential dangers or believed that the issue was being exaggerated by scientists. A minority (18%) recognised that climate change was taking place, but were unconcerned. One view that was expressed was that although climate change may be occurring, it will not greatly affect our generation. Another was that climate change may not necessarily be a bad thing.

However, the dangers of climate change have been heavily documented in China’s news media. A search on the Chinese search engine Baidu brings up 920,000 web pages related to climate change, while a search on Google produces 2.45 million. The public has apparently learnt a lot about climate change from the media. The survey found that the vast majority of people were highly aware of climate change, its causes and effects such as warmer winters.

Sustainable consumption in daily life

The survey showed that 84% of people agree that car exhaust is the main cause of urban air pollution. Only 8% disagree, and the other 8% are not sure. Although the vast majority of those surveyed thought that exhaust fumes were the main pollutant in cities, when asked “If you could afford it, would you buy a car?” only 15% said no. More than two-thirds said that they either would “definitely” (27%) or “possibly” (49%) buy a car.

This indicates that although people are aware of the sources of urban air pollution, this does not affect their patterns of consumption. As long as they can afford it, the vast majority of people will choose to buy a car.

Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – do behave in environmentally friendly ways in their daily lives, conforming to standards of sustainable consumption that include the frequent use of public transport, turning off lights when they are not being used, being aware of ways to save energy, water and electricity, limiting the use of air conditioning and replacing refrigerators less often. Younger people also have a certain amount of environmental awareness. They are aware of the role of car exhaust fumes in damaging the urban environment and know that government offices and hotels often consume large amounts of energy.

However, there are also many blind spots in the public’s environmental knowledge. For example, the benefits of energy-saving light bulbs are not widely recognised; many people are not aware of how much water they consume; and there is not wide enough recognition of the importance of choosing locally-produced goods.

When young people make plans for their future and seek to improve their quality of life, they often do not take into account the environmental effects of the choices they make. For example, there seems to be a strong desire to own a car, with the vast majority of people wanting to buy one if they can. There is also a widespread and strong desire to own one’s own home and carry out home improvements.

In general, adults have a positive attitude to saving energy, electricity and water, while the under-18s seem not to care as much. Seventy-six percent of people said that they “make sure to consume less in every area of life”, while 23% of people said they were “not too bothered” about making savings. Only 0.4% said that they “do not try to limit consumption at all”.

Young people’s consumption patterns

When asked what people most desired as consumers, the survey found three major winners: to own a large home (38%), to travel abroad (21%) and to own a car (12%). Interestingly, these results correspond almost exactly to the aims of young British consumers. The Sustainable Consumption Roundtable report said that young people in the UK aspire to own large homes, a good car and a comfortable lifestyle: “Foreign travel represents the main goal of consumers”.

Over-consumption is increasingly being viewed as part of a fashionable lifestyle. An ethos of competitive consumerism is being promoted by commercial interests and tempts people into replacing products such as clothes, shoes, mobile phones and mp3 players more frequently than ever before. Credit cards have, in only a few years, become widespread in China. The public has many material desires, and young consumers’ desire for a large home, a car, and foreign travel is almost exactly the same as that of their counterparts in developed countries.

Spending on public accounts is an issue that is often in the public eye, and almost half of the survey respondents had been given the opportunity to take advantage of meals and travel paid for on official expense accounts, either by claiming directly for expenses themselves, or by being invited out by others on expenses.

The survey also suggested that 48.7% of office buildings and 38% of homes are fitted with energy-saving light bulbs. Approximately 17.2% of offices and 31.8% of homes have no energy saving bulbs at all. So why is it that – despite a widespread desire to save electricity in the home – energy-saving bulbs, which are so effective at conserving energy, are so rare?

Research shows that a five watt energy-saving bulb is as bright as a 25 watt standard bulb, but while the standard bulb lasts for only 1,000 hours, the energy-saving bulb will last for 5,000 hours. In addition, energy-saving bulbs use 60% to 80% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. However, energy-saving bulbs are often several times the price of standard bulbs, and require a greater initial investment. It seems it is difficult for the public to be sure that energy-saving bulbs will actually cut their electricity bills – and work out cheaper for them in the end.

The survey shows that 77% of consumers believe there are not enough energy-saving products on the Chinese market, only 4% disagreed with this view.

In trying to understand the public’s attitude to energy-saving bulbs and locally-sourced products, it seems that the costs and benefits of these products are not obvious enough to the consumer. The lack of clarity in the issues of cost-performance has so far prevented the energy-saving bulb from becoming commonplace in China’s households.

With this in mind, it seems the public does not have an overly positive attitude towards energy-saving products. Even though new energy-saving products constantly come on to the market, consumers still feel that there are not enough of them. In fact, cost performance is still the dominant factor when people select their purchases. Reading between the lines, the public seems to be saying: we want to protect the environment and support sustainable consumption, but we’re not going to sacrifice our quality of life for the cause.

The effects of environmental awareness

Sustainable development needs examples for people to follow, and most of the public looks to the government to provide this model. The survey shows that 58.8% of people would like the government to take on this role, and 24% said that they think businesses and businesspeople should provide models of good behaviour. In addition, the vast majority (78%) see environment protection as a responsibility of government, with a significant number also seeing the corporate world as having some responsibility.

The Chinese public is not alone in these sentiments. UK consumers also put their hope in government and corporations, rather than the attempts of individuals to change their lifestyles. According to the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable report, more than 80% of British consumers believe that the government has the largest responsibility for promoting sustainable lifestyles.

In China, the government is advocating a “conservation-minded society” and ideas of sustainable development. Sixty-one percent of the public is aware of this, and supports the initiatives, but 34% of people say that although they would like to cooperate and participate, they do not have the means.

Environmental protection is a hot topic in China, with newspapers, television and the internet all providing the public with information on conservation. But environmental awareness does not necessarily lead to changes in patterns of consumption. But whatever the result, the public welcomes governmental and corporate initiatives to provide more environmental information on product labels.

The public tends to support government initiatives that promote sustainable development and a conserving society, but they often have no means to participate. The public wants the government to set examples of sustainable consumption and feels that businesses have some responsibility to act as role models. There would, however, be strong resistance if people were asked to sacrifice their current living standards for the sake of sustainable consumption. Many people see the pursuit of a comfortable lifestyle as an individual right. Fortunately, traditional values that promote simple lifestyles are still strong. Whether due to feelings of guilt about waste, or a simple desire to save money, the values of energy-conservation and environmental protection have gained strong public acceptance.


China Youth Daily Economy and Life Editorial Office

Homepage photo by Zoom Zoom