By Amena Lee Schlaikjer
I spent my whole life wandering the globe as the daughter of an American diplomat, fascinated by different cultures and their different takes on similar things. How the ‘French Fry’ transforms its shape, taste and cultural definition differently in America, France, The Netherlands, China and Japan. How gifting for favours can be outright bribery in some places or a business necessity in others. How health is either something you’re born with, are lucky to have, need to strive for, or is the simple balancing act of a set of routine steps. It’s no wonder I found myself in the profession of insight marketing and innovation, digging for clues as to why people perceive and embrace things the way they do, and how companies can inspire people to make healthy, intelligent choices (well, at least the ones I try to work with).
Working with the Asia Pacific LOHAS group from one of the most dynamic (yet unhealthy and unsustainable) cities in China: Shanghai, I’ve had the pleasure to witness the unfolding of LOHAS in its early stages. To grasp China’s take on LOHAS, it’s important to understand the cultural perspective of people’s interaction with their environment. It is this personal vs. planetary relationship that dictates the level of concern, involvement and impact people will have towards change. In theory, the Chinese attitude towards sustainability is a very ‘holistic’, symbiotic relationship where “me and my environment are One” based on traditional Daoist/Buddhist influences. However, in practice, it is actually more ‘distanced’. Consumers see the problems of the environment but are removed from them because they feel powerless and disengaged to make a difference, a responsibility that is believed to belong to the government. However, they feel how the environment and strain of over-development has had its toll on health and hence, know they are a part of the equation. One has to remember that , China’s population of young, influencing “me-focused” One-Child Policy working citizens (18-35 years of age) are coming into more wealth than China’s middle and upper classes has ever seen. As the editor of LOHAS magazine (a China-based publication), Jane Yu, commented, “People never really consumed a lot here so it would be unnatural to get them to stop. The overall contribution to the environmental impact would be the same so long as that consumption behaviour is mindful. Chinese values resonate much more with “loving yourself” first before you can think about your family and the environment.”
Therefore, in comparing the attitudes towards Sustainability with other cultures, they are not Dominant (like America taking the lead in global initiatives), not Socalistic (like Europe where everyone has a say in how things are legislated), not Reverent (like New Zealand/Australia where nature is in everyone’s backyard) nor Doomed (like in places at the edges of climate change seeing its drastic effects). In China, that “Distanced” perspective, with the right education and mindfulness may revert back to the more traditional view of being Harmonized with one’s environment, and therefore, feel the need to change behaviour to respect that harmony.
The guildelines, as crafted by LOHAS magazine, the leading authority on the definition of LOHAS in China are:
1) Love Yourself
2) Care for others
3) Concern for the planet
Very much in that order. At the core of the awareness cycle, it’s all about “Am I making the right choices for me, my home and my family?” And these tend to be household decisions that are health-focused, something everyone can have control over and an insight that any company positioning themselves with a green message in China should consider.. “There may be milk scandals and bleached mushrooms in the market, but I, as a smart LOHAS consumer, will tend to consume something I know to be safe, rather than petition or lobby against the forces that be.” This is a cynical marketplace, in constant fear of the safety and quality of products on shelves. There’s disbelief in that something could be 100% organic: more likely a false label in order to charge a premium. They’d almost rather buy something that is 51% organic but honest with product labeling. Consumers feel like they can only be cautious; and take small actions, like not using plastic bags, taking more public transportation, buying more plants for the household and conserving energy usage: most of which are already deeply embedded in the behaviour of most low-to-middle class Chinese as a way to save money and live healthy. In conveying this mentality, companies have embraced “LOHAS” as a kind of stamp of approval. Not a certifying authority on anything green, but a consumer-created “brand” or “badge” that says, “This product is going to make your life more stress-free.” I’ve seen it used on the likes of everything from Dairy Queen brochures to healthy fast food eateries, from fashion retail outlets to spa treatments. It’s an attitude.
That attitude doesn’t really get involved beyond a consumer choice into community activities that proactively try to promote environmental awareness and action. The past 5 years has seen an increase in community volunteer organizations (HandsOn China is the largest of these, promoted mostly through CSR programs) though we’re at very early stages of consumer adoption into realms of social responsibility: like embracing Fair Trade, CSR, civil justice, volunteering and philanthropy. It’s so early-stages that even awareness towards recycling or green packaging are a “nice-to-have”, so long as the ingredients I’m buying are safe, natural and healthy.
The reality of it is just that some issues are out of people’s control, and as a Shanghai resident, I also feel this deeply. The air I breathe is horrendous, government programs to promote green feel propagandist, China’s necessary fast-growing economy to raise everyone towards a better standard of living (from a GDP-growth standpoint) is happening and it’s not slowing down. Therefore, it’s impossible to be completely purest with an ideology towards sustainable practices (our economy is growing in the double-digits and two coal factories are built each week) or good health (I’ve tried raw food diets and vegetarianism in China…it’s really, really hard). In essence, it’s about balance, social stability and just creating a happy, healthy home with the best educated choices I can make. And in that sense, not too far off from the LOHAS consumer behaviour elsewhere in the world, just in earlier stages of awareness that is still “me-focused” with an infrastructure that is still learning about how invest in natural capitalism. There are more sacrifices here around what’s available and what you’re able to have control over.
The practice of “balancing” one’s life and creating a happy home will soon evolve into a re-discovery of that harmonious relationship of the body with its surrounding environment, hopefully with a proactive ability to change things. That moment will be a positive phase in tackling this as a global community. For now, LOHAS in China is perceived as a trend. A brand or lifestyle that promotes stress-free living and smart, trendy consumer choices (and let’s not forget, you have to consume to be LOHAS here). A lifestyle that is modern, but about going back to traditional roots of being closer to Nature. The point at which Chinese consumers understand that much of this personal stress experienced through the pressures of modernization and over-development are intrinsically connected to environmental stresses, is the day that everything clicks.
Ted Ning is renowned for leading the annual LOHAS Forum, LOHAS.com and LOHAS Journal the past 9 years Ted Ning is widely regarded as the epicenter of all things LOHAS leading many to affectionately refer to him as ‘Mr. LOHAS’. He is a change agent, trend spotter and principal of the LOHAS Group, which advises large and small corporations on accessing and profiting from the +$300 billion lifestyles of health and sustainability marketplace. The LOHAS Group is a strategy firm focusing on helping companies discover, create, nurture and develop their unique brand assets. For more information on Ted visit www.tedning.com