Sustainability in China: What Do Chinese Consumers Really Think About It?

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Like the rest of the world, Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of their purchasing decisions by the minute. A new report has shed light on what consumers in this hugely influential market really think about sustainability and how best to make their products a success in China. 

Set to become the world’s biggest consumer market in the years ahead, China represents a hugely lucrative opportunity for businesses to tap. So how can sustainable brands navigate the local intricacies of the Chinese market and make their products a success? New research from consultancy The Silk Initiative (TSI) explored this question and the unique perspectives that Chinese consumers have towards sustainability. 

Sustainability is still a nascent driver

The report surveyed more than 600 consumers across all age demographics in China, including participants from a range of cities, from major hubs like Shanghai and Beijing, to second and third-tier cities such as Hangzhou, Nanjing and Zhuhai. Researchers also drew on in-depth interviews with consumers, distributors, and businesses. 

One of the main findings of the TSI report was that while sustainability was a rising concern among Chinese consumers, it remains a nascent motivator when it comes to their purchases. 

52% of Chinese shoppers said they were influenced by the environmental track record of brands, but other issues such as quality, taste and product safety remained the “most critical to conversion” into real purchases. 

“Regardless how sustainable, eco-friendly, or healthy a product might be, Chinese consumers will never compromise on quality and taste,” says the report. “This is the number one factor brands must keep in mind, especially if they are going down the sustainability route.”

Barriers to sustainability adoption

When it comes to what’s preventing Chinese consumers from making the leap to actually purchase more sustainable products, despite rising awareness about environmental issues, the TSI report says that cost and perception of the effectiveness of products are key obstacles.

According to the survey, just 30% of respondents said they were willing to pay a high premium for sustainable brands. It also found in interviews that consumers, while viewing these brands as progressive and environmentally-conscious, did not see how companies’ green practices would make a positive difference to their own lives. 

In particular, some cited the lack of effectiveness, or when it comes to sustainable food products, the perception of a lower standard of taste, to be barriers to consumer adoption. This aligns with findings in a separate UK-based study, which suggests that sustainably-marketed products are often associated with poorer product performance among mainstream shoppers.

TSI researchers say that for those Chinese consumers who have begun purchasing eco products, the main motivators include shoppers’ sense of social responsibility, personal health and wellness and finally, their wishes to live more sustainably. 

Related: 90% of Chinese consumers prefer animal-free leather, survey finds

Tangibility and story-telling

To capture a slice of the Chinese market, sustainable brands should run “creative, tangible campaigns” and make sure that their product and brand image is relevant to the local shopper, says the report. 

“Consumers we interviewed had the best impression of sustainability programs that brought them along for the ride,” the report wrote. “Virtual activities, interactive displays, and offline events were all ways some brands engaged consumers in their sustainability messaging. These types of campaigns were also rated as most impactful and memorable for consumers.”

In terms of communicating with Chinese shoppers, brands should also ensure that their story aligns with locally specific concerns and issues. “They want to see how your product, brand, and company is working to help address the unique issues China faces each day. These can be highly local and should include issues consumers can observe, have experienced, or can benefit from.”

All images courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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