Despite global millennial calls for greener products, sustainable luxury has been a difficult topic in China. Most Chinese consumers hold a pragmatic attitude towards luxury and see luxury products as the badge rewards of a Capitalist ideology. And even when green marketing does infiltrate the Chinese luxury landscape, the word “sustainability” usually carries more bark than bite.
Despite these attitudes, China’s first waste sorting law was implemented in Shanghai on July 1st, and it might have the power to change the country’s “green” inertia. Having been the “world’s wastebasket” for decades, China is now enforcing waste sorting policies across its most economically advanced states — like Shanghai — to tackle its enormous garbage problem.
The policy has quickly taken Chinese social media by storm. In the first week of July, three of the five top-searched topics on Weibo were related to Shanghai’s trash policy: #wastesortingbagssoldout, #wastesortingrulesdriveShanghaicrazy, and #touristchargedwiththrowingtrashincorrectly. This lifestyle change in Shanghai is just a glimpse of the issues that will soon take over other Chinese cities. Now, for the first time in modern Chinese history, sustainability has the potential to turn into a real consumer movement. There are two reasons for this. First, the new waste sorting law should encourage people to choose “enough” over “more,” and second, this lifestyle change should inspire consumers to become more conscious of the materiality of the things they buy, which is a crucial step toward understanding the value of sustainable luxury.
Before the waste sorting law was implemented, the mainstream Chinese attitude towards consumption had largely been “more is better,” but now that’s changing. By July 4th, the food-delivery app “Ele.me” had seen a 149 percent increase in orders with the note “no plastic cutlery needed” within Shanghai as compared to June. A rival app “Meituan takeout” had also reported a sharp increase of “no tableware please” orders since the policy started.
The extra step to think about waste has reshaped how people consume in the first place. Kenny Zhang, a 26-year-old financial analyst in Shanghai, told Jing Daily, “Before [the policy], I always ordered an appetizer and dessert with takeout without blinking an eye. Now I order just one dish, no water, and no appetizer, so I don’t have to deal with the complicated food waste.” In China, waste sorting is a relatively new practice, and most Chinese are not very well informed about waste management or recycling rules.
Confusion, coupled with the consequence of paying a fine for missorting, has forced Shanghai dwellers to buy just enough so there is less waste. “In the past, I would place many orders from e-commerce sites without any second thought,” said Kenny. “Now, just thinking about the packaging, the box, the tape, it is already too much work.” In fact, the waste sorting policy had even changed how people consume bubble tea — one of the country’s most beloved rituals. In a poll of over 40,000 Shanghai residents, 54 percent said they had stopped drinking bubble tea because sorting the different parts of a packaged drink is too complicated.
As a result, people have started to become more aware of the materiality of their purchases. All of a sudden, the waste, the overpacking, and the other forms of material excess that were overlooked during the mass consumption era have become visible. “I recently bought a piece of jewelry online, and when I took it out from an enormous paper box with countless plastic wraps inside, I felt a sense of guilt,” said Amy Zhao, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student in Shanghai. “But just a few months ago, I left a bad review for an online seller because the packaging was too simple. I used to think the more packaging, the better,” she said. Contrary to the utilitarian packaging in most Western countries, most Chinese online sellers tended to use fancy-looking packaging as a reassurance of quality, which then became expected. Now it is seen as wasteful. Consciousness is the first step toward thoughtful consumption. Only when Chinese consumers have shifted their mindsets from “more is more” to “less is more” will sustainable luxury brands make a real connection with them.
Similarly, Chinese consumers need to cultivate an understanding of sustainable materials before brands can communicate their true differences to them. Today, the lexicon of sustainability in China is very limited. The lack of a clear, well-defined vocabulary in Chinese has thus caused a lot of misunderstanding among mainstream consumers. For instance, most Chinese consumers equate the concept “natural (天然)” with “organic (有机),” as if a cotton shirt made from plants in “nature” is automatically organic. But as more Chinese consumers — especially the hyper-informed millennials — learn to read product labels and investigate the production processes, they will be able to cultivate a more thoughtful approach towards buying things, unlike previous generations.
As the initial leg of China’s larger overall trash reform plan, Shanghai’s waste sorting law should necessarily be seen as the very beginning of a wider lifestyle change. The broader implications of this law could end up being crucial to luxury’s future. As the policy unfolds, Chinese consumers will soon be aware of the environmental consequences that come from shopaholic lifestyles and will adjust their buying accordingly. In China, now could be the time for sustainable luxury, which had been moving at a relatively slow pace, to gain real momentum for the first time.