New study examines buying choices of China’s middle class

Published on
June 2, 2016

The buying choices and patterns of China’s middle classes are the subject for a fascinating study by Australian academic Michael Fabinyi and three Chinese co-researchers, shared with SeafoodSource this week.

Based on interviews with 300 middle-class urban Chinese consumers interviewed in Beijing and Shanghai, the study, ‘Regional Studies in Marine Science,’ suggests that while there’s awareness among the consumers of concepts of seafood sustainability, there is little will to action on a personal level. The study also found the issue of food safety is a far more important driver of decision-making than sustainability among China’s middle classes.

A questionnaire put a list of statements in front of consumers, which they marked according to level of agreement.

“The statement with the highest mean score from respondents was ‘Protection of endangered species can be better achieved by government regulations, compared to public awareness campaigns,’” Fabinyi said.

Fabinyi believes Chinese consumers’ view of “the limited role of the consumer” is supported by the high score given to the statement “I basically don’t ask if the product is in danger of extinction when buying or consuming seafood.”

Disappointingly, survey respondents gave one of the lowest scores to the statement: “Huge consumption of certain seafood species by Chinese consumers will threaten their existence.”

The Fabinyi study suggests awareness of concept of sustainability is highest among those aged 35 and lower. That’s not surprising given they’re the Internet-savvy group targeted by campaigns by international NGOs built on advertisements featuring celebrities like Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, which have focused on the preservation of sharks and other wildlife.

The nature of China’s state is the main impediment to the promotion of sustainability. The study’s findings are indeed the product of the nature of the Chinese system, where government sets the agenda and independent environmental campaign groups have to be either run by or approved by government. International environmental groups like Greenpeace and WWF exist in China on government’s invitation to advise government. The lack of an independent body to represent the seafood industry, meanwhile, means there’s no independent voice through which to push sustainability through the sector.

A lack of government urgency on seafood sustainability may be explained in part by the conflict of interest inherent in China’s voracious long-distance fishing fleet, much of which is owned and operated, directly or indirectly, by the state. As China’s domestic waters have become increasingly overfished, government at both the national and regional levels enthusiastically pursued the transformation of local vessels into an international fleet fishing in disputed waters in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ocean and off the coast of Africa. As a result of this expansion, the fleet has subsequently been caught numerous times fishing illegally around the globe – making news from Argentina to Indonesia and beyond.

An absence of coverage of these incidents in China’s (state-run) media helps explain consumer lack of awareness over the endangered nature of several seafood species, as suggested by the surveys in Fabinyi’s report.

Other major problems hurting the sustainability of China’s seafood consumption are the dire state of food traceability initiatives and confidence in local labelling. A statement about food safety – ‘Compared to sustainability, I am more concerned about food safety when consuming seafood products’ – also received a very high level of support from Fabinyi. This is not surprising, as despite the country’s strengthening of its food safety law has, China has struggled to combat large-scale malpractice in its food processing and retail sectors.

Seafood retailers have also actively engaged in the widespread practice of using or allowing false or misleading labels that have added to the confusion and eroded consumer confidence. Customers strolling the aisles of a Beijing supermarket encounter seafood packaging declaring its contents are “green,” “ecological” or “sustainable,” but there are practically no fact-based efforts to support these claims. In fact, some brands have devised their own certification-style logos in a blatant greenwashing effort, taking advantage of a situation in which Chinese consumers now unconsciously conflate ecology and sustainability with food safety.

All of this is unfortunate, given so much is at stake. The spending power of Chinese seafood buyers is increasing, in line with the growing average Chinese income (at between five and 10 percent per year over the past decade). The Fabinyi study found that consumers are spending surprisingly large amounts of money on seafood: CNY 2,642 (USD 401.15, EUR 359.77) per year for lower middle-income groups, CNY 2,970 (USD 450.97, EUR 404.42) annually for middle-income groups and CNY 4,273 (USD 648.85, EUR 581.87) for higher-income earners.

With the country’s predilection for seafood and its increasing wealth, it’s likely that China will soon be one of the most important hubs of the international seafood trade, and perhaps the single largest market. Given Fabinyi’s data, however, it’s hard, to envision China’s consumers becoming champions of seafood sustainability any time soon.

Contributing Editor reporting from Beijing, China

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