China vs. the American Consumer – The Environmental Cause
The New York Times recently commenced a series called “Choking on Growth,” which highlights the unintended but astronomical environmental consequences of China’s economic development. For foreigners living in Beijing and other parts of China it is a grim reminder of how dirty the air that we breathe every day is and for the rest of the world, it is an effort to force them to confront the fact that behind the double digit GDP growth is a frightening environmental crisis that is now a critical global issue. It will likely be a very interesting series that will hit on many of the key issues, but for the sake of this post, there are two sentences in the first article (written by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley) that deserve discussion:
Chinese leaders argue that the outside world is a partner in degrading the country’s environment. Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump smoke into the sky make the cheap products that fill stores in the United States and Europe.
As previous posts have touched on, two of China’s most daunting challenges today are one, product safety and maintaining strong demand overseas for Chinese made goods and two, making real progress in curbing environmental degradation. The above quote concisely illustrates where these two issues overlap.
The cheaper Chinese goods that foreign consumers rely on are cheap partially because the manufacturers do not have to treat hazardous waste to the level that Western manufacturers do. This keeps costs lower but it also results in situations like the one in Lanzhou, Gansu Province where it is believed that 10% of the Yellow River flowing through the city is human and industrial waste. As the world comes face to face with the impact that China’s economy is having on the global environment there will be calls from all corners of the world to take action. If one makes the connection between cheap Chinese goods and environmental degradation, then one of the most salient ways for an individual to take action is to stop buying Chinese goods until the Chinese government cracks down on pollution.
This would be a consumer-based protest to an environmental crisis that puts western consumers in a bit of a moral bind – are we willing to spend significantly more in our everyday shopping for non-Chinese goods if we know that somewhere down the supply chain we may impacting the behavior of Chinese manufacturers? Perhaps the connection between the cheap toys on the store shelves and the pollution streaming into China’s rivers is too convoluted to gain momentum, but this environmental reason to avoid Chinese goods only adds to the anti -“Made in China” fire smoldering overseas.