In a country so vast and so foully polluted as China, it is hard to know where to start cleaning it up.
Ma Jun decided to start with people: properly informed people. And that strategy has turned his small nonprofit organization into China’s most respected â€“ and feared â€“ public watchdog, which has brought some of the world’s biggest companies to heel.
“The real No. 1 barrier to environmental protection in China is not lack of money or technology,” says Mr. Ma, one of the country’s best-known environmental activists. “It is lack of motivation. We need the public to provide that motivation. But they must be informed before they can participate in any meaningful way.”
Weakly enforced environmental laws
Ma developed his environmental chops on the ground, exploring â€“ and sniffing â€“ China’s grossly degraded and polluted waterways as he researched a book, “China’s Water Crisis,” that revealed for the first time just how grave the situation is.
Neither of those routes was going to work in China, he realized.
“We have the laws and regulations, but enforcement remains very weak,” he says. “Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental protection; even the courts are beholden to local officials, and they are not open to environmental litigation.
“So we can’t go that way,” he concluded.
Instead, he thought, the key was transparency. If enough people knew who was spewing what into China’s rivers they might be able to put sufficient pressure on the polluters to shame them into better behavior.
‘Information is key’ to making an impact
“Ma understood that information is key,” says Isabel Hilton, founder of ChinaDialogue, a website focused on Chinese environmental issues. “He saw that protest without information tends to make noise, not impact.”
Back home, Ma set up a small nonprofit group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), and began combing public records to compile an online database of companies reprimanded for pollution.
Those records have been swelled by a 2008 law that compelled local authorities to disclose pollution information; they do not all obey that law by any means, but more and more of them are releasing data that feeds IPE’s user-friendly, easily searchable website, Ma says.
Today the site contains details of 96,000 violations.
Though local and multinational corporations are featured on IPE’s “name and shame” list of violators, it was foreign firms, such as Panasonic, that reacted fastest, Ma recalls. They came to him to ask how they could get themselves out of the critical public eye.
“They have much bigger and more valuable brands, and they are more sensitive to public pressure,” Ma points out. That made them more willing to pay for the changes in the way they disposed of their waste â€“ verified by an independent environmental auditor â€“ that were needed for them to get off the list.
Using the buying power of consumers
“He has worked out a subtle and effective engagement with polluters,” Ms. Hilton says. “It’s a very constructive engagement.”
Chinese firms, though, were mostly unmoved. How could Ma find their pressure points?
He turned to consumers, leading a group of 41 nongovernmental organizations in the Green Choice Alliance that campaigned for shoppers to “pay attention to companies’ environmental performance, and use their buying power to change it.”
A 2010 campaign focused mostly on well-known Chinese companies that were found to have violated environmental laws and that were susceptible to consumer pressure â€“ food and beverage firms, for example, or corporations in the personal care business.