China: The Next Superconsumer?

The Guardian takes a look at the social an environmental impact of China’s rising consumerism:

Until recently, China was living within the planet’s means. If everyone in the world consumed what the average Mr or Mrs Wang did in 2007, we’d just about stay within the sustainable resources of our planet. Humanity would have a balanced ecological budget. But, understandably, Mr and Mrs Wang wanted to keep up with Mr and Mrs Jones on the other side of the Pacific. That was human nature. It was also bad news for the environment, because if we all ate, shopped and travelled like those average Americans, we’d need 4.5 Earths.

In recent years, the planet’s largest corporations have become dependent on the Wangs catching up with the Joneses. The US had shopped until its economy dropped. Sinking in debt, plagued by obesity and increasingly dependent on military might to protect its lifestyle, the world’s superconsumer was groaning with indigestion. Europe was too decrepit and conservative to take up the slack, so global manufacturers, retailers and restaurant chains were desperate to stimulate the Chinese appetite. Shanghai was their beachhead. While information firms and political lobbyists headed to Beijing and manufacturers flocked to Guangzhou, retail giants almost invariably chose Shanghai for their China headquarters and their first showrooms. From Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and Starbucks to Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, international brands made the city a giant shopping mall. Shanghai became the biggest, richest, most globalised mass of modernity in China, home to the most luxurious boutiques, the tallest buildings, the nation’s first formula one track, the biggest auto companies, the second busiest port in the world and a gathering horde of international salesmen trying to sell the American consumer lifestyle.

Chinese consumers have never had more options. America’s Wal-Mart, France’s Carrefour, Britain’s Tesco and Japan’s Ito Yokado are expanding in China faster than in any other country. Each year, they open hundreds of new stores in the expectation that demand will surge as more rural migrants move into cities and work their way into the middle class. Young urbanites are becoming as enthusiastic about french fries, burgers and fried chicken as their counterparts in New York or London. When the first KFC opened near Tiananmen Square in 1987, it was seen as a novel western dining experience; 20 years later, the company has 2,000 outlets in 400 cities, employing 200,000 people, making it easily the biggest restaurant chain in China. In roughly the same period, McDonald’s had grown from one restaurant to 800.

Along with the changing diet came a surge in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Obese children used to be rare in China; now nearly 15% of the population is overweight. Shanghai is often cited as the worst affected city. Barbie™ burgers and the like are part of an increasingly carnivorous diet. To feed its growing livestock, China imports huge quantities of soya, much of it from Brazil, which has resulted in accelerated clearance of Amazonian forest and Cerrado savanna. Like many other wealthy cities, the high-protein, high-octane, jet-set lifestyle is being paid for elsewhere.


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