Are all products "made in China" equally bad for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Aug. 19 2008 12:02 PM

Is Red China Ever Green?

Are all products "made in China" equally bad for the environment? 

Everyone is talking this week about the smog in Beijing, which got me wondering: Many of the things I buy, from my kids' toys to my washing machine, come from China. Am I responsible for the dirty air in Beijing?

The Lantern is on the scene at the Olympics, and he'll start with the good news: Compared with a year ago, the city's air does feel cleaner, and newly planted trees and shrubs line the streets. (It certainly helps a bit to shut down production in local factories and keep 1 million cars off the street.)

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Beijing's air pollution has still been recorded at levels above World Health Organization standards, and as China's environmental challenges go, that's just a small part of the problem. Last year, the World Bank calculated that air pollution was responsible for at least 350,000 premature deaths in China each year—and that may be a low estimate. Over half the water in China's seven main rivers has been deemed unsafe for consumption (PDF), and its sources of clean water are at a major risk of running dry. Meanwhile, China has already overtaken the United States as the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, by some calculations, with its carbon footprint still growing rapidly.

The Lantern believes the Chinese government is sincere in its desire to clean up; for example, it is one of the few countries to try to produce a Green GDP calculating the costs of its pollution. But efforts to make China greener often conflict with the country's desire to maintain its rapid economic growth. That economic growth has been driven, in part, by the rest of the world's desire for inexpensive Chinese products.

That's where your washing machine comes in. Although reliable statistics are hard to come by, recent estimates suggest that about a quarter to a third of China's carbon emissions and water pollution are linked to the country's exports. Of course, manufacturing your new toaster is going to require energy and produce waste wherever those products are made. (It's greener to design a product than to manufacture it, so it isn't quite fair to blame China for polluting just because American companies have chosen to send the dirty work abroad.)

All things being equal, though, a factory in China is likely to have a larger carbon footprint and release more pollution than a plant making the same product in the United States. On average, Chinese factories tend to be less energy-efficient, and they rely heavily on energy sources like coal that produce more CO2 and have a greater impact on air quality. Some estimates (PDF) have placed the annual carbon burden of shifting production from the United States to China as high as 500 million metric tons of CO2—an amount equivalent to the total emissions of Italy. The fact that these Chinese products must be shipped overseas to consumers might add another 10 percent or so to the total.

So what's an American consumer to do? It's difficult to avoid buying products made in China, as many American-made products contain Chinese parts or are crafted with Chinese machines. Not all Chinese products are equally bad: There's evidence that China's exports are getting cleaner over time, and there's reason to believe foreign investment into China is bringing cleaner technologies into the country. But American consumers don't have any good way to determine which products are best to avoid. Each step in the Chinese manufacturing process may be the responsibility of a different and more or less anonymous company, making it all but impossible to determine the exact carbon footprint of any given product. Unless a parent company pushes them, there can be little incentive for Chinese suppliers to promote sustainable practices: Few people, if any, would even know about their accomplishments. (This brings us to one of the Green Lantern's golden rules: The more you know about who makes what you buy, the more likely they are to be environmentally friendly.) To make matters more obscure, there is wide variation among factories in China—even within the same industry. The older plants are still very inefficient, while many of the newer ones are using imported state-of-the-art technology.

You can still make an educated guess about how to buy green from China. Here's a decent rule of thumb: High-tech products like electronics usually aren't so bad, while products like leather and glass tend to be associated with a lot more pollution. Chinese textiles—which might go into making the linens or T-shirts sold by your favorite brands—have also been fingered as a major environmental culprit, with several companies blamed for depositing dangerous levels of wastewater into local rivers.

We may have better information in the near future. Several companies that do much of their manufacturing in China are beginning to talk more seriously about evaluating the "life cycle" of their supply chain. That would let consumers and investors in the United States reward greener practices. Even then, it's worth remembering that for all of China's environmental problems, Americans still emit about four times more carbon dioxide per person. The world may be focused on Beijing's smog this week, but our efforts are probably still better spent worrying about what we do at home.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com and check this space every Tuesday.

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