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Grassroots Environmentalist Ma Jun

Action through Information


Action through Information


Activist Ma Jun has become the standard bearer of grassroots environmentalism among urban middle-class Chinese. His push for cleaner manufacturing even made stubbornly resistant Apple come around.



Action through Information

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 534 )

Just off one of Beijing's notoriously busy main traffic arteries is a quiet, secluded corner of the Jianguomenwai diplomatic compound, east of the Forbidden City. Housed in one of the area's tall office buildings is the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

The unassuming office of some 150 square meters is devoid of any interior decoration – just bare white walls, a wooden floor, and simple, spartan desks. Ten employees are quietly working in front of their computer screens.

It is hard to believe that Ma Jun and his team, working from this small, quiet  place without substantial human or fiscal resources, are able to push large multinationals such as Apple to strengthen pollution controls in more than 1,000 Chinese supplier factories. After all, IPE is operating in a country that still places considerable restrictions on civil groups.

Ma followed the example of Greek philosopher Archimedes, who once said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world." Using "information access" as his lever, Ma made the "supplier management" of large corporations his fulcrum. This is how IPE's small staff of eleven people were able to get things moving, effecting change across all of China by forcing companies to be accountable for their harmful manufacturing practices .

The mild-mannered 45-year-old does not come across as a firebrand social activist. Ma speaks calmly and slowly, his thoughts well organized. While his gentle, polite demeanor belies the underlying persistence and resolve, Ma is not a fiery, eloquent orator.

He is not an extremist who takes on the government and business conglomerates, nor does he incite street protests or stage sit-ins in front of factory gates.

Ma is more of a humble, polite scholar who uses cool reasoning and compelling evidence to convince others to join his cause. With his disarming honesty, he assists companies in addressing their environmental problems.

Ma, who grew up in Beijing, used to be an environmental reporter for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post daily newspaper. Traveling all over China on reporting assignments, he witnessed the severe pollution of Chinese rivers and the rapid deterioration of the country's environment.

A particularly shocking experience during a reporting trip to northern Shanxi Province in 1994 eventually jolted Ma into action. He has been devoted to cleaning up China's environment ever since.

Wastewater Coloring China's Waterways

Ma's journey took him to the Fen River Valley where he witnessed an alarming level of water pollution. "Wastewater in a myriad of colors was flowing into the Fen River. It looked like a huge artist's palette," recalls Ma.

In the summer of 1998 when China experienced massive flooding along the Yangtze River, Ma began to write his book China's Water Crisis, exposing the horrid details of widespread pollution of Chinese rivers. This first wake-up call earned him celebrity status in environmental circles.

Sometime after leaving his reporting job at the South China Morning Post, Ma was invited to spend a year as visiting scholar at Yale University in the United States in 2004. He used his study stint to compare environmental management policies and systems in the East and West, laying the foundations for his future environmentalist mission.

"It was at that time that I strongly felt that environmental protection requires the participation of society, and that access to information is the first step," Ma recalls. Since, back then, no one in China was working to make pollution information publicly accessible, Ma decided to get involved himself.

In 2006, Ma founded IPE with just three staff members. Based on Ma's book, IPE developed its first project, the China Water Pollution Map, China's first complete, nationwide database of official waterway pollution data. Public response was overwhelming.

As a result, Ma was named one of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World" by Time magazine.

Ma truly made his influence felt when he formed the Green Choice Alliance with other NGOs to push large multinationals to pay attention to environmental performance within their corporate supply chains in China.

How could IPE, as a small non-profit organization of just 11 people, make such an impact?

"By looking for a force to get things moving," explains Ma. IPE used "information access" as a lever and the "supply chain management" of large corporations as a fulcrum to move the multinationals into action, to make their Chinese suppliers adopt greener practices.

Within China's environmental movement, Ma may be described as a master of "information leverage."

The IPE staff researches and collates detailed information on pollution at suppliers of multinational corporations, processes it in a database, and publishes it in reports. These are made available to the public via the Internet and the media.

More important is that Ma and his organization have so far not drawn the ire of the government, because they avoid any direct confrontation with the system.

Ma is well aware how sensitive information about environmental pollution and degradation are. Therefore, he opted to look for information within the system.

"We always use publicized government information and supervision records, which we gather from local environmental protection bureaus, media reports and public complaints," explains Ma. Thanks to this approach IPE has gained high public trust and is able to avoid controversy.

Ma uses the databank to assist companies in monitoring their suppliers, which in return has earned him their trust.

Most multinational companies that value their brand image have responded to the IPE initiative and are making improvements. Ma and his IPE continue to track the progress of improvement measures, which is made public on the Internet along with supplier rankings.

Partnering with Samsung, Coca Cola

Over time, IPE has emerged as a valued partner for the big multinationals in managing their Chinese suppliers.

In 2008, the globe's largest retailer Walmart began to cooperate with Ma, using the IPE database to keep an eye on its supply chain in China. Even today, Walmart still regularly compares its supplier lists with IPE data as part of its supply chain management.

Other large multinationals have followed suit. GE and Coca Cola from the United States, Siemens and Unilever from Europe, Matsushita from Japan, Samsung from South Korea, and internationally known electronics companies from Taiwan and China such as Foxconn and Lenovo all use IPE data to monitor the environmental performance of their suppliers.

Already more than 1,000 companies large and small are cooperating with Ma. "This is all just a drop in the ocean," says Ma, warning against excessive optimism.

In 2011, Ma launched a "Poison Apple" campaign when Apple stubbornly refused to cooperate with IPE, further boosting his reputation as an environmental crusader.

Earlier, in 2010, Ma and the Green Choice Alliance had completed a lengthy survey, discovering that the Chinese supplier factories of 29 global electronics brands including Apple were causing heavy metal pollution.

While most enterprises reacted to the IPE findings, Apple did not respond, citing its policy of not disclosing supplier information. Ma even twice wrote a letter to then Apple CEO Steve Jobs, but his appeals fell on deaf ears.

Eventually, Apple's unresponsiveness and unwillingness to face up to its responsibilities overtaxed Ma's patience. So at the beginning of 2011, the Green Choice Alliance launched an online signature drive and published an investigative report titled The Other Side of Apple, which exposed data on heavy metal pollution at Apple contract manufacturers and the company's reluctance to address these harmful practices. The report made the headlines and caused an uproar in the corporate world.

Public Pressure Forces Apple to Break Silence

After Tim Cook took over as Apple CEO in August 2011, the company's attitude changed, and Apple representatives met with Ma in Beijing. In late 2011, Ma flew to Silicon Valley for talks at Apple headquarters. The two sides began to cooperate after Apple pledged to increase supply chain transparency and to strengthen its supplier monitoring.

Last year, Apple released an investigative report, acknowledging that its Chinese suppliers had a pollution problem. The company also began to actively address the problems and improve the situation. Today, Apple has moved up in the IPE supply chain management rankings of global multinationals from the rear end to the top spot.

In the wake of the "Poison Apple" campaign, Ma was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year, in honor of his impact in grassroots environmentalism.

"The power of information access has brought public pressure to the polluters," Ma said in his acceptance speech, urging the audience in his balanced, moderate way to not let up in their scrutiny of large brands' environmental performance. "Today we are facing great challenges, but we trust that the green choice made by an informed public will provide the ultimate driving force to address all of them," he went on.

Ma is not a charismatic social activist with mass appeal, but instead relies on facts and evidence – a lever and a fulcrum – and the grassroots forces of China's well-educated urban middle class to push companies into cleaning up their poor environmental performance in pollution-ravaged China.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz