The Rise of Chinese Consumer Society: Emerging challenges and opportunities for sustainable consumption and production

The Rise of Chinese Consumer Society: Emerging challenges and opportunities for sustainable consumption and production

Alison Browne, Leonie Dendler, Zhu Di, and Dunfu Zhang

China has rapidly developed a notion of the consumer and of domestic consumption as a form of economic development, alongside a pathway to sustainable development, which together highlight a number of tensions.

China introduced widespread economic reform in 1978 and since then the socio-economic changes have been vast. Even in the early 1980s there was a rapid increase in supply and demand for fashionable consumer goods and the emergence of new retail sites, and the consumer revolution kicked in in earnest in the 1990s (Croll 2006). This consumer revolution in China has and is developing in parallel to unprecedented levels of urbanisation and rural-urban migration. Well over half of the Chinese population now live in cities, with the figures increasing year on year.

Urbanisation has reinstated historical urban/rural inequalities. For example, while in the past 10 years the country has slowly expanded its basic social welfare system, such as pensions (Gurría, 2014), rural migrants have had very little access to social welfare within the cities they migrate to. Income inequalities between rural and urban areas have also become more pronouncedRural poverty persists as the country experiences vast increases in urban, largely private wealth, such as escalating levels of home ownership. For example, about nine tenths of Chinese families own their own homes. The large speculative housing markets, particularly around mega-cities, has led to housing bubbles and high vacancy rates in investment properties.

In the rush to accumulate material wealth, China has witnessed a huge change in social structures and traditional values (Podoshen et al., 2011). The development and rise of these private forms of wealth accumulation and housing investment are in stark contrast to the ‘work unit socialism’ model of centrally provisioned housing, related services, and security. These widespread socio-economic changes have also developed alongside massive urban and rural transformations. As is well documented these transformations have had large negative impacts on ecology and the environment related to land use change, environmental degradation, natural resource scarcity, and pollution.

These dynamics are not counterpoised by civil society mechanisms, such as environmental activism, as they have been in the West, although some argue that while there is not “a civil society”, there is “the germination of a civil society” (Shi, 2004). However, even in the absence of a strong civil society, Chinese policy landscapes are changing with plans to increase social security, reduce inequalities, and expand household consumption and the consumer society, while also tackling environmental sustainability.

The Development of Chinese Economic and Environmental Policy
The Chinese government is trying to shift the economy from export-based growth towards domestic consumption. Currently domestic consumption is a much lower share of GDP than countries of similar income level and of other Asian economies. Part of the reason for this is the absence of a welfare state, leading to a stronger savings culture, for example to fund education, health expenditure and saving for old age. The new goal of economic growth for China is to decrease this savings ratio and boost consumption.

In recent years, China’s environmental regulation policies have also undergone a number of transformations, shaped by a desire to transform national domestic consumption in a sustainable way. Concepts such as “green consumption”, “low carbon society” and “environmentally friendly technologies” form the cornerstone of China’s current economic and environmental aspirations.

There have been a number of recent consumption-focused developments within economic and environmental policy, which has led to a number of concrete policy measures. The first stage, from 2002 onwards, was characterised by a mode of economic development that focused on resource saving, environmentally friendly consumption and “ecological civilisation”. The second phase – developed from 2011 – has seen a shift from production to consumption, developing through concepts such as cyclic economies and green lifestyles , and in 2014 sustainable development plans for resource intensive cities, and green consumption as one of the six consumption domains to expand the Chinese domestic economy. Consistent with this approach, in 2015 the State Council called for energy saving, emission reduction, and “green consumption” – the need to advocate for consumption patterns that reflect frugality, green, low carbon forms. The related concept of “ecological civilisation” has largely been interpreted as finding technological solutions to water, food, housing, energy supply with reduced environmental costs and tackling environmental pollution (Gare, 2012).

Tensions in Policy Aspirations
There are a number of challenges and tensions within these current policy frameworks. The policy frameworks tend to be based on a simplistic notion of consumer demand as a driver to sustainable consumption. For example, the relationship between consumer demand for ‘green’ products and improvements in the quality and efficiency of production systems is assumed.

Throughout Chinese history frugality and constraint have been central to the ownership and use of material objects – shaped by Confucianism and later Buddhist thought (Kieschnick, 2003). President Xi’s administration has, for the past few years, been promoting new forms of ‘green’ frugality. Much of the frugality policy is geared towards anti-corruption with government officials in terms of public spending – such as reducing expensive and wasteful business entertainment including banquets. These notions of frugality are also re-emerging in the everyday practices of consumers such as through a reconnection with cultural norms of thrift around food waste.  Sustainability should not just mean technological innovations and efficiency – it can also involve reviving more sustainable practices, even from the recent past.

At the same time, contradictorily, increasing domestic household consumption of consumer goods is also a feature of both economic and environmental policies. The Chinese government is trying to increase domestic consumption of Chinese produced goods – particularly higher price point, higher quality and sustainably designed Chinese goods. The tariff has also been lowered on imported goods to reduce prices in an attempt to encourage domestic (higher end) consumption.

Growing awareness of consumer rights and consumer sovereignty in a context of low consumer trust in Chinese brands creates a further challenge to the objective of increasing the purchase of Chinese produced goods. Trust issues are particularly apparent in the food sector, which are partly a result of endless food safety scandals. The 2008 milk scandal, where toxic melamine was found in Chinese produced milk powder products, is a clear example and resulted in the overwhelming popularity of purchasing Dutch and internationally produced milk, milk powder and baby formulas. The impact of such scandals have extended to the purchasing decisions of the rising middle classes who are increasingly consuming imported, non-GMO, ‘green’ and ‘sustainably’ produced foods (Dendler and Dewick, 2015).

Challenges for Sustainable Consumption in China
Rapid transformations are occurring across Chinese cities and regions in terms of urban development, housing and energy and water systems. Sustainable forms of development are only possible through understanding how changes to large scale systems (like food production systems, industry and city regional development) effect the dynamics of  everyday household consumption, such as water and energy use, or much more conspicuous consumption like the purchase of luxury goods. For example, the material changes to cities and rural areas – such as the development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei ‘super-city  – substantially influences everyday life and its sustainability. Such changes in regional development influence sustainability by shaping the patterns and dynamics of commuting, mobility, childcare, and leisure as well as provisioning energy, water and food. Understanding how these big changes are influencing the dynamics of everyday life, sustainability and social inequalities (such as increased commuting costs from outer suburbs to places of work for the urban poor) will be important. Such questions are only going to become more salient as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals encourage the issues of economic growth, social and economic equity, and environmental sustainability to be addressed together as a country develops.

The new politics of the green consumer – an aspiration of current Chinese economic and environmental policy – brings with it a number of tensions. The risk going forward is that China over-emphasises individual responsibility and consumer choice (the sovereign consumer) rather than addressing systemic problems and interconnections of production and infrastructure with consumer practices. Importantly, a number of these policy areas have implications in potentially entrenching already existing inequalities related to goods, services, housing and the rural/urban divides. There remain a number of opportunities for sustainability within the context of the growth of the economy through consumer society. If this economic and environmental development is not just defined by products but also the consumption of new forms of services, then an opportunity to reconfigure production and provision more sustainably and enrich the everyday lives of Chinese consumers emerges.


Further Reading
Croll, E. (2006). China’s new consumers: Social development and domestic demand. London: Routledge.
Gare, A. (2012). China and the Struggle for Ecological Civilization. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23(4), 10–26.
Kieschnick, J. (2003). The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Podoshen, J.S., Lu, L., Zhang, J. (2011) “Materialism and conspicuous consumption in China: A cross-cultural examination” International Journal of Consumer Studies, 35: 17-25
Shi, Y-H. (2004) “The issue of civil society in China and its complexity” in Y. Sato (ed). Growth and governance in Asia. Hawaii: Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies


Alison Browne is a Lecturer in Human Geography and Research Fellow in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, UK. Leonie Dendler was a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester, UK and Fudan Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, China from 2012-2015. Zhu Di is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, China. Dunfu Zhang is Professor at the School of Sociology and Political Sciences at the University of Shanghai.