Placing ‘sustainability’ in context: narratives of sustainable consumption in Nanjing, China

Publication authors

Chen Liu, Gill Valentine, Robert M. Vanderbeck, Katie McQuaid, Kristina Diprose


This article examines how ordinary people practice the notion of ‘sustainable consumption’ in relation to their everyday lives and experiences of the wider environment and how these understandings relate to public discourses of sustainability in contemporary China. The paper is based on an empirical analysis of 129 narrative interviews with local residents in urban Nanjing, collected as part of an interdisciplinary and international comparative research project. It argues that in popular narratives, a combination of ‘being green’ – living a healthy lifestyle which has less impact on the environment – and being rational through qinjian jieyue – by reducing both consumption and waste –is regarded as key to sustainability. Such attitudes align with recent government campaigns to create an environmental-friendly and resource-conserving society. However, the analysis demonstrates how this sustainable way of consumption is restricted by Chinese mianzi and guanxi cultures, the anxieties caused by scares related to food safety, a social welfare system that does not promote a sense of security and a widespread distrust of products made in China which has diffused across society. We argue that studies on discourses and practices of sustainable consumption must strive to take more account of diverse local contexts and sociocultural frameworks.