Growing up in Philadelphia and frequenting New York City, I was always appalled at the air quality and smog as the car, bus or train I was in approached Manhattan. Especially on summer days, the smog often looked so thick, it was nearly enough to hide all the graft and corruption that made Newark famous. Well, almost ... "car jackings" -- the preferred means of transportation for many of the city's downtrodden and oppressed inhabitants -- never quite managed to obscure themselves within the haze.
Still, these Newark memories served me well for the first time I encountered the level of industrial pollution outside of Beijing. In many areas, the hovering clouds have turned what vegetation is left from green to grey. It's a sad site --- one that made even someone like me who used to favor lax environmental regulations reconsider his political stance on the subject. Seriously, all I could think about at the time was how the pollution around Beijing's industrial ring really was Newark times ten (if that's even possible, in the post Tony Soprano era). In fact, I'd argue that for those who have spent time in Shanghai, the horrendous air quality around Beijing stands out even more.
According to a recent Reuter's article that comments on the environmental situation in China, things are not getting better. This wire dispatch cited a recent study which found that "Nearly two-thirds of Chinese cities suffered from air pollution last year and had no centralized sewage treatment facilities, state media reported on Tuesday ... [and] Only 37.6 percent of 585 cities surveyed had air quality 'indicating a clean and healthy environment,' down 7.3 percentage points from 2005." And "thirty-nine cities, many scattered across the northern coal-rich province of Shanxi and China's northeastern rustbelt province of Liaoning, suffered 'severe' air pollution."
Clearly, China has a long way to go to clean up its air quality act. However, critics still have a field day singling out the US as the world's largest polluter. Personally, I believe that when you've been to Beijing --and other mega Asian cities such as Mumbai -- you realize that these scientific reports really amount to political hogwash when looked at from a polluted street level versus the ivory tower. And this is something that all companies sourcing from Asia should take into consideration from an environmental stewardship perspective.
Promoting and measuring environmentally responsible suppliers who take air quality seriously in Asia -- and China, especially, in the most polluted areas -- is something we should all care about. But unfortunately, I fear this is of secondary concern not only for the Chinese, but for those Western businesses sourcing from and selling into the region. Trust me on this -- I'm about as free market in my trading and political views as they come. But when you can't breathe while walking down the street to visit a supplier or even when stopping by an historic site outside a major city in between factory tours, I'd call that a serious wake up call for all of us -- especially for those like me who used to discount the role of environmental sustainability within the supply chain.