More Chinese creating 'clean living' environment

China's persistent pollution and regular product safety scandals are driving an increasing number of consumers to build bubbles of clean air, purified water and safe products at home.
China's persistent pollution and regular product safety scandals are driving an increasing number of consumers to build bubbles of clean air, purified water and safe products at home.PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI • Screenwriter Liu Nanfeng has five air purifiers, two air quality monitors and a water purification system in his Beijing apartment. He buys organic produce. But still he worries for his two-year-old daughter's health.

The 34-year-old said: "I feel safe at home, but when we go out... It feels hopeless."

China's persistent pollution and regular product safety scandals are driving an increasing number of consumers to build bubbles of clean air, purified water and safe products at home and in their cars.

Beijing has twice this month issued pollution "red alerts", the first time it has triggered its most severe smog warning.

While there is no official data on their numbers, market analysts say Mr Liu's tastes reflect the concerns of a large and growing group of well-heeled urban consumers.

Foreign and domestic companies are starting to take notice of what could be called "bubble families", a demographic whose emergence has been fuelled by new technologies and the rapid spread of e-commerce.

Though air quality data has been available for years from China's government - as well as the US embassy and consulates around the country - public awareness of environmental threats is on the rise, especially since the February online release of journalist Chai Jing's documentary on the environment, Under The Dome.

Websites such as Alibaba's Taobao.com have made it easier to find products from overseas that are perceived as safer.

For Mr Xue Peng, a 32-year-old chemical engineer in Shanghai, his wife's pregnancy three years ago changed everything.

"I had a life I needed to protect. It was my responsibility to give him a safe environment," he said.

Mr Xue spent about 30,000 yuan (S$6,500) on two air purifiers from Philips and Swedish company Blueair and a further 20,000 yuan on a water purification system from US firm Ecowater. He limited his toy purchases to big, trusted names such as Lego and Fisher Price.

"Parenthood is a huge catalyst for consumption and upgrading of certain products," said Ms Elisabeth de Gramont, the Shanghai- based vice-president at Jigsaw Communispace, a consumer research group.

Among upper middle class parents in China's bigger cities, buying toys and skincare products for children from overseas is common, she said.

Mr Min Yoo, managing director for China and Korea at market researcher YouGov, said the group of consumers concerned about the environment includes "the 50-, 60-year-old local Chinese living in a city who has never been outside China, whose adult children would buy these products".

The growing public concerns have presented companies with many opportunities.

Bosch, the German electronics group, recently began selling an in-car air purifier and a small air quality monitor developed in China for the Chinese market.

Xiaomi, the homegrown electronics brand best known for its affordable phones, has launched a new line of air and water filters and monitors. During a November promotion, it sold more than 42,800 air purifiers. And by mid-December, its newest model, released only on Nov 24, had sold out.

Imports of bottled water are up sharply in volume terms, rising from 36 million litres two years ago to 46 million litres in the first 10 months of this year, according to Chinese Customs.

Sales at Fruitday, an app and online platform for imported fruit, rose 150 per cent last year to 500 million yuan, the company said.

Reports of fake goods are common in China, so consumers who can afford to prefer more expensive products, said Mr James Roy, associate principal at China Market Research Group.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'More Chinese creating 'clean living' environment'. Print Edition | Subscribe