China’s economic growth created one of the top two or three largest consumer markets in the world. That isn’t really news, but Western companies selling their products in China may need to look at their ESG communications and messaging through the lens of China consumers. I ran across this interesting article pointing out that China consumers apparently take a dim view of Western ESG messaging.

The first thing that may come to mind is how some companies emphasize manufacturing outside of China either because of potential negative associations with supply chain human rights issues, or as a way to reduce product transportation carbon emissions. Those points obviously are not likely to resonate well for Chinese buyers.

But the article points out something I had not considered:

“When reaching China’s young, climate-conscious customers, luxury and fashion must not fall into the trap of ‘educating’ them from a condescending, Western-centric point of view…

Despite sustainability being one of luxury and fashion’s most-hyped marketing concepts today, brand-led engagement efforts in China have been few and superficial, with brands often translating a global marketing brief in Chinese without applying any local context. As a result, few have succeeded in creating messages that resonate with China’s sustainability audience…

On September 12, Everlane, the sustainable American label par excellence, announced its China exit by closing its Tmall flagship store. Although its reasons for exiting are complex, the brand’s sustainability communication problem played a relevant role…

Adding to the slow growth of sustainability movements in China is the state media’s increasingly open criticism of Western-centric greenwashing. Earlier this month, much official media coverage of the COP26 summit accused wealthy Western nations of having no ‘moral right’ to force developing countries to reduce pollution output, stating that these sustainability talks were an empty marketing stunt. For instance, Greta Thunberg, the poster child of global youth climate activism, has long been seen as a negative figure (a privileged ingénue) on Chinese social media. Netizens refer to her as ‘the Environmentalist Princess’ suggesting that the native of Sweden has a condescending tone regarding the topic.”

Maybe the concepts of sustainability and ESG are global, but they need to reflect local/regional sensibilities.

What This Means

The article offers ideas for Western companies to overcome potential ESG communications obstacles:

  • Resist the temptation to impress Chinese audiences with approaches, concepts and language used in Western markets. Many terms and claims from “common sustainable marketing playbooks are inherently Western-centric.”
  • Carefully consider the context of sustainability certifications. Some “contain political connotations that could irritate China’s growingly nationalistic consumer public”, such as the Better Cotton Initiative which is anti-Xinjiang-grown cotton.
  • “Amidst China’s hypercompetitive market, sustainability messaging is only a part of what will ultimately make a brand stand out… Brands need to combine sustainability messaging with quality aesthetics, competitive prices, and impeccable service to beat the cutthroat competition because sustainability won’t work alone.”

While China is the focus of this piece, the challenges apply to other countries and regions. Understanding the cultural setting of ESG – and adapting corporate programs, actions and messaging – is critical to success anywhere on the planet.

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