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Difference Maker

Ma Jun helps Chinese find out who's polluting and shame corporations into cleaning up

2012 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ma Jun enlists ordinary Chinese to help clean up China's pollution.

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Those records have been swelled by a 2008 law that compelled local authorities to disclose pollution information; they do not all obey that law by any means, but more and more of them are releasing data that feeds IPE's user-friendly, easily searchable website, Ma says.

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Today the site contains details of 96,000 violations.

Though local and multinational corporations are featured on IPE's "name and shame" list of violators, it was foreign firms, such as Panasonic, that reacted fastest, Ma recalls. They came to him to ask how they could get themselves out of the critical public eye.

"They have much bigger and more valuable brands, and they are more sensitive to public pressure," Ma points out. That made them more willing to pay for the changes in the way they disposed of their waste – verified by an independent environmental auditor – that were needed for them to get off the list.

Using the buying power of consumers

"He has worked out a subtle and effective engagement with polluters," Ms. Hilton says. "It's a very constructive engagement."

Chinese firms, though, were mostly unmoved. How could Ma find their pressure points?

He turned to consumers, leading a group of 41 nongovernmental organizations in the Green Choice Alliance that campaigned for shoppers to "pay attention to companies' environmental performance, and use their buying power to change it."

A 2010 campaign focused mostly on well-known Chinese companies that were found to have violated environmental laws and that were susceptible to consumer pressure – food and beverage firms, for example, or corporations in the personal care business.

Thirteen of the 20 targeted companies have taken corrective action or laid out their plans to do so, Ma says.

At the same time, he sought another way into Chinese corporate culture – by pressing big multinational corporations to ensure that all their Chinese suppliers met legal standards.

"For foreign companies, China is all about price," Ma argues. "They lure local suppliers to cut corners to win contracts, and that is very negative for China's environment; the more they buy, the worse it is. But if they raised their requirements on social and environmental performance they could become a positive force."

More and more of them are doing so. Global giants such as General Electric, Nike, Vodafone, Coca-Cola, and Sony now check their suppliers against IPE's list of violators and "push them to come to us to make public disclosures about what went wrong and how they will fix it," Ma says.

Even Apple pays attention

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