KFC junking the jungle

After months of preparation, Yang Jie finally took her place in front of a busy KFC restaurant in Beijing's Chaoyang district with two fellow activists who were dressed as homeless orangutans living in giant KFC chicken buckets. They held banners that read, "My forest home is NOT your disposable food packaging!" A third activist dressed as a tiger lay sprawled at her feet, victim of deforestation. (View photo here.)

In a steady voice she began to explain to the throng of journalists and bystanders who had gathered around why she and the other volunteers were here. Greenpeace had recently published test results that suggested a link between KFC's fast food packaging, including that in China, and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) mills. The results were reported by media around the globe.

The mills are being fed from Indonesia's Sumatra peat swamp forest, contributing to the endangerment of the Sumatran tiger. Yang had come to deliver the report to the store's manager.

China is no longer simply the factory of the world. The world's second biggest economy has also become the shopping mall of the world, with the consumer choices of China's swelling middle class now a huge driving force behind global production. But with power, comes responsibility. And when the fast food munching ways of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens are destroying hectares of Indonesian rainforest by the day, how will the country respond?

KFC has long been heralded as the success story when it comes to foreign companies planting their flag in Chinese soil. Last year, profits from parent company Yum's 4,500 restaurants in China, mostly KFC outlets, reached $908 million. This makes up half of the company's 2011 operating profits, and outstrips by a mile their U.S. profits of $589 million. It's hard to believe that China's KFC stores now top the profits of all of the United States' Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut stores put together.

And where corporations go, corporate watchdogs must follow.

KFC's winning strategy, which saw them "adapt to the Chineseness of China without losing the advantages of foreignness," has been widely documented, and international, environmental organizations should take note. How to leverage the trust and quality that is associated with a foreign name, while employing a deep understanding of the language and culture that goes beyond lip service?

In the history of Greenpeace's 14 years in China, campaigns with strong ties to human health have traditionally garnered the greatest public attention: air pollution, toxic chemicals in toys, illegal pesticide use in tea. Which makes a campaign such as this, linking fast food packaging to deforestation in Indonesia, particularly challenging. Not only does it lack an immediate or direct impact on human health, the environmental destruction isn't even taking place in China.

"Not many city people in China have actually seen a rainforest, and they're KFC's target market," Yang said. "But a tiger is revered in Chinese culture. [This] strikes a chord with the Chinese public. They can relate better to a tiger than a rainforest."

Online, the campaign rolled out with a mini-site. One commenter said: "KFC and Yum must release a statement, or else say goodbye to our business. Compared to the problems of the rainforest, eating less [KFC] really isn't a big deal."

Another said: "There's no problem with using paper, but consuming natural rainforest to make this paper is a definite 'no.' We should appeal to corporations to use recycled fiber. Tiger conservation is of natural imperative, but even more important is that we protect ourselves."

In the pull-and-tug game of China's sustainable development, too much muscle has lain on the side of development, rather than sustainability. But the ongoing and growing successes of some campaigns are signs that environmentalism – as a mindset, and a set of values – is beginning to bloom in this country.

And it couldn't come any sooner. While China may be a country beset by internal, environmental problems, as global brands invade the country and the demands of a rising middle class set the tone for global production, Chinese consumers are quickly finding they also have both a responsibility – and opportunity – to change the world beyond their borders. Indeed, a new Gallup poll saw 57% of Chinese adults surveyed say that protecting environment should be given priority, even if this risks curbing the country's economic growth. And only 21% believed economic growth should trump environmental protection.

"More and more people in China are becoming aware of deforestation. You can see it in the growing number of green paper products being offered in supermarkets in China, like Dongguan's Free Forests line and Kimberly-Clarks FSC certified tissue line, just to name a couple," Yang says, smiling. "There's hope yet."

Image © Melvinas Priananda / Greenpeace