Ma Jun: Creating a Cleaner China

At a panel discussion hosted by Asia Society and NRDC on November 4th, Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun argued that the push for more sustainable supply chain practices is also a call for more transparency, collaboration, and knowledge sharing among business, government, non-profits, and local activists. “This is the watershed moment,” Ma said. “If we can seize this moment and embed that with climate strategy, do you know how much we can achieve?”

The best way to monitor and correct environmental violations, said Ma, is to establish benchmarks, collect sound data, and make violations transparent to the public. Fellow panelists Linda Greer of NRDC and Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey agreed that it is vital to encourage transparency and raise the standards of the manufacturing industry as a whole.

Ma’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) is leading the campaign in China for greater transparency. IPE maintains a database that collects information on the environmental impact of factories all over China. Most importantly, it makes the data publicly available online via its China Water Pollution Map.

IPE’s data is collected through its own investigations, as well as by local activists who participate in IPE’s “Take A Picture To Locate A Polluter” program. This crowdsourcing technique calls upon local citizens to use social media to identify factories responsible for environmental violations. By taking photos and collecting data for further research and investigation by IPE, ordinary citizens can become a crucial part of the solution.

The Chinese government is also responding to the growing crisis. For example, to address to China’s increasingly dire air quality, Ma noted “. . . the government is responding with huge action plans. In the areas surrounding Beijing, 18 million fewer tons of coal will be burned every year.”

Large multinational corporations are beginning to respond as well, which has been a key goal for IPE. Mendonca praised the strategy of starting with large, highly visible corporations like Nike, Apple, and Siemens, whose impact is so outsize that their embrace of environmental protection can have spillover effects for competitors and the economy at large. Such companies are very familiar with the more stringent environmental regulations in the U.S. and other countries. Now, the panelists agreed, it is necessary to convince them to follow similar practices in China as well.

One example of IPE's impact is their work with Apple. In their first meeting with the firm, Ma and NRDC’s Greer presented their findings on environmental violations to Apple representatives. At first, Greer said, Apple simply didn’t believe that it could have been responsible for so much damage. But after reviewing IPE’s findings and verifying them through its own investigations, Apple switched course and began working on cleaning up, becoming the first large, successful IPE collaborator.

The next steps, Ma said, are to expand beyond consumer products into other, more challenging sectors like cement, steel, and coal, which cause far greater environmental damage.

How can others repeat IPE's successes? First, Ma said, “You must do your research.” One cannot walk into a meeting and expect people to listen without sound data and expertise. He stressed that an attitude of openness to collaboration, not antagonism, is equally important.

Though success can be hard to gauge while other polluters continue to impact the environment, Greer noted that one key indicator of success is when companies stop evading authorities and request improved government regulation -- a step which levels the playing field for competitors as well.

Melanie Nutter, Director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, moderated the panel. The sold-out event was held in partnership with the NRDC and co-sponsored by The Goldman Prize and the S.F. Department of Environment. 

Learn more about Ma Jun in this recently published profile. You may also view a video of the entire event.