Image: CafeCredit (2016) ‘Credit Check’ (creative commons)
Four years ago, China announced that in 2020, a Social Credit System (SCS) would become mandatory for all 1.4 billion of its citizens. Similar to a Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’ showing a dystopian society, this proposed system rates individuals on factors such as their credit history, personal characteristics, behaviours and preferences. Whilst the ethical dilemma rages on about if the Chinese government should put the system into practice, few have considered the implications for sustainability; the SCS could curve overconsumption in China through redefining what are ‘correct’ purchasing patterns.
One company currently trialling a SCS is Sesame Credit. Measured behaviour often relate to purchases, with Li Yingyun, Sesame Credit’s technology director infamously being quoted in 2015 saying “someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person…”. Therefore, the full implementation of the SCS has the potential to directly influence customer behaviour and patterns; the choice of brands will represent something about their personality. Brands will become even more symbolic and a part of citizens’ desire for social belonging, a likely trend being that customers will change their purchasing behaviour depending on what products connote a higher score.
With the growing middle class in China, more people have choice over their consumption. Some would argue that this is a positive for sustainability; it tends to be people in poverty who have to consume whatever they can get their hands on, sustainably or not. However, with the growing importance of status and class in China, citizens may start over consuming; the desire for luxury, rare and excessive purchases could increase.
This presents a vital opportunity for China to redefine what it means to be affluent; if sustainable products were classified as ‘good’ in the SCS, by that they give citizens more points, they would become more popular and the value of sustainability would shift in the minds of Chinese consumers. This idea could be taken further, with sustainable acts such as recycling or using public transport instead of cars leading to a higher score. The opportunities that arise from the SCS could reach far and wide for a country which is the world’s largest consumer of natural resources.
Ethical arguments do rise from this proposed sustainability solution; many see the SCS as a mass manipulative tool to give the Chinese government even more control. Chinese citizens already face strict living controls and if a sustainable way of life was pushed down their throats, would they come to resent it? Furthermore, if the SCS was to be beneficial by promoting sustainable lifestyles, it is under the assumption that the Chinese government would want to promote sustainability.
All in all, controlling Chinese citizens’ consumption through the SCS is an ethical minefield. On one hand, it would be better for the planet and give consumers the incentive to buy sustainable products. There is no planet B, so once our natural resources are depleted we can’t go back and fix our mistakes. Yet how can anyone have a say in another person’s consumption; we are all polluting the earth so why should Chinese consumers have to change their patterns so drastically.
By Millie Bland
Tajfel, H. (1971) ‘Social categorization and intergroup behaviour’ European Journal of Psychology 1(2) pp.149-178