For Many Taiwanese, “Buying Green” Has Long Been a Priority

Data indicates that Taiwanese shoppers favor products and brands that foster environmental protection and sustainability, while the government has aggressively promoted green procurement in both the public and private sectors. To meet the growing demand and catch up with international trends, local manufacturers are increasingly “greening” their production processes.

It should come as no surprise that in Taiwan, a market that boasts one of the best, most comprehensive recycling systems in the world, local consumers tend to seek out eco-friendly products. In fact, a survey conducted by CommonWealth Magazine in 2010 found that more than 80% of Taiwanese shoppers were willing to spend more to buy sustainably produced goods. A little over a decade later, that trend seems only to have strengthened as more and more consumer goods manufacturers – both international and domestic – roll out attractive “green” products to sell on the Taiwan market.

In a more recent survey carried out by market research provider Euromonitor International last October, 69% of consumers in Taiwan said that they are actively reducing their use of plastics. Around half stated that they seek out products that use sustainable packaging and 35% said they buy sustainably produced items as a way of decreasing their carbon footprint. In drought-stricken Taiwan, where water has become a much more precious resource, 38% of survey-takers note that they are limiting their water use as well.

To be sure, much of the impetus to purchase green products and services comes less from an environmentalist impulse to save the earth and more from economic self-interest. Chen Ching-yuan, general manager of the Environment and Development Fund (EDF), an NGO that spun off from the Industrial Technology and Research Institute (ITRI) in the late 1990s, says that consumers tend to care most about their own health and safety – and their wallet – when buying household products and appliances.

“Green grocery products like detergents are the most important for individual consumers because those can help them protect their health,” he says, adding that the other most popular category is “energy-saving products because these can help the consumers save some costs.” Chen says that the main goal of manufacturers is to make green products as close in price to their traditional versions as possible.

Since 1997, the EDF has been tasked with reviewing and certifying product applications for the Green Mark, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration’s (TEPA) eco-label. Adhering to the ISO 14024 international standard for Type I eco-labeling, the Green Mark has been awarded to an increasing number of products and product types since its inception in 1992. According to Chen, there are currently around 5,000 products from over 150 different product categories available on the Taiwan market.

The Green Mark is a voluntary system, a tool for encouraging manufacturers to improve their production practices and use more green raw materials. The way it first began growing in acceptance was not the result of consumer demand, but rather through the government’s efforts to encourage the public sector to prioritize environmentally sound goods and materials in its procurement practices.

In the Government Procurement Act that the Legislative Yuan passed in May 1998, Article 96 authorizes government agencies and other public institutions to give preference in tenders to products with a government-approved eco-label, as well as those that increase social benefits or reduce social costs. The article also allowed a cost difference of up to 10% between the desired green products and their conventional counterparts. Li Chi-hua, chief of the TEPA’s Supervision Evaluation and Dispute Resolution Section, notes that Taiwan was the first jurisdiction to codify the promotion of public-sector green procurement into law.

A few years later, in 2001, the Executive Yuan established a program that set annual green procurement targets for government agencies, public schools, public enterprises and organizations, and the military. This move effectively unlocked the government’s enormous purchasing power and made obtaining the Green Mark a much more attractive prospect for Taiwanese manufacturers. In 2020, the value of green government procurement totaled NT$10 billion (US$356 million), a 15% increase from 2019, according to TEPA data.

The program was so successful that the TEPA in 2007 expanded its promotional efforts to Taiwan’s private sector. While a large part of this push was intended to spur enterprises and their suppliers to purchase more eco-labeled products, the TEPA has also teamed up with local environmental protection bureaus to improve the procurement practices of private companies and their suppliers. This effort includes helping companies develop an e-learning network to educate employees and suppliers about green consumerism, collecting and sharing case studies of successful communication between management and employees regarding green consumption habits, and providing guidance on green procurement.

Beyond these measures, the TEPA has also reached out to both brick-and-mortar shops and online sales channels, encouraging them to sell eco-friendly products and become certified as Green Stores. The criteria for certification are relatively minimal – stores need only sell three or more types of Green Mark-awarded product or a similar combination of Green Mark and Carbon Footprint or Carbon Footprint Reduction-labeled product categories. But the TEPA’s Li says the program has given stores a stronger incentive to sell such products. He notes that there are now more than 10,000 Green Stores across the island, adding that the program has expanded in recent years to include service providers such as hotels and restaurants.

The TEPA has even rolled out a GreenPoint system that enables consumers to earn points by taking public transportation or buying green products. Those points can in turn be converted into discounts on purchases of green products and services, including through a growing number of e-commerce platforms.

While Taiwanese consumers are increasingly willing to buy products that have less of an environmental impact, Vanessa Chang, director of Hong Kong and Taiwan communications at consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble (P&G), says that they are also purchasing from brands whose values align with their own. This might include companies that champion equality and inclusion and community impact, in addition to environmental sustainability. She notes that the COVID-19 pandemic added a new sense of urgency regarding these consumer preferences, not just in Taiwan but globally. According to data collected by P&G, 36% of consumers worldwide changed their purchasing habits in relation to sustainability as a result of the pandemic.

Chang says that while P&G works to ingrain sustainability practices into its manufacturing supply chain and collaborates with partners across the industry and the world on solutions, it places equal importance on enhancing product performance as a way to shift consumer behavior to create a positive impact on the environment. She cites as an example the company’s Ariel brand laundry detergent, popular in Taiwan. The detergent’s highly concentrated formula and compact gel capsule design means less plastic is required for its packaging and consumers can conserve water and energy by cleaning their laundry in one wash cycle, Chang says.

She also points to the company’s Fairy Pure & Clean Washing Up Liquid, which contains zero dyes and fragrances and whose bottle is made from 100% recycled materials. Chang says that P&G conducted a life cycle analysis to gauge the product’s environmental impact from its raw materials to its manufacture, packaging, usage, and disposal, using the information to determine how to reduce its carbon footprint.

“We discovered that only 10% of that footprint is product-related,” she says. “So product performance is where we can enable consumers to drive sustainability.”

Package deals

An outbreak of local COVID-19 infections in Taiwan this May began spreading rapidly throughout the island, at its peak reaching 500-600 new confirmed cases per day and forcing the government to raise the pandemic alert to Level 3. Among the restrictions that were implemented were a ban on all indoor dining at restaurants, a mandate that face masks be worn at all times outside the home, and a limit on the number of people in grocery stores and public markets based on the number on their ID, alien residence certificate, or passport.

These “soft lockdown” measures, along with the government’s efforts to encourage people to stay at home over the past two months, have resulted in a temporary “stay-at-home economy” in Taiwan, with online shopping and food delivery orders increasing sharply in a short period of time. The Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Department of Statistics reported last month that retail sales revenue for e-commerce and mail order businesses in May totaled NT$25 million, a 27% increase from May the previous year. And while overall food and beverage sector revenue in May fell by 19%, both foodpanda and Uber Eats, the two most popular food delivery companies in Taiwan, reported huge spikes in orders of food and groceries on their platforms, particularly in the first two weeks after the Level 3 restrictions were announced.

Along with these increases of goods and food purchased online has come a rise in single-use paper and plastic packaging, much of which is immediately disposed of by consumers once they receive their order or finish their meal.

Beyond reminding residents to properly separate and recycle these materials, the TEPA has also begun working with local e-commerce platforms to reduce the amount of packaging materials they use when shipping items. A program the administration launched in August 2019 has to date gained the participation of 18 e-commerce companies, each of which submits a packaging reduction plan to the TEPA for review. Once the plan is approved, the company receives a label to display on its platform. According to the TEPA’s Li, participating platforms decreased their packaging materials by 2,344 metric tons in 2020.

In addition, Li says, the TEPA from October to December last year teamed up with PChome24, momo, FPG Shopping, and four e-commerce platforms that sell products directly from local farmers to promote sustainable packaging for products purchased through their sites. Through the initiative, 8,241 parcels with the eco-friendly packaging were shipped, and the TEPA plans to expand the program’s scope in the future.

Private companies in Taiwan have also become involved in the push to decrease the environmental impact of product packaging. One such company is Cheng Loong Corp. (CLC), one of Taiwan’s leading producers of paper products. From the company’s founding in 1959, it has put itself ahead of the curve, sustainably speaking, by using an ever-larger ratio of recycled materials in its paper-making processes.

Maggie Chen, manager of CLC’s Sustainability Department, says that through its circular-economy production model, the company seeks to create a “secondary forest” – conserving 20 trees with every metric ton of recovered paper that it uses. At present, CLC uses around 1.7 million metric tons of recovered paper per year, a utilization rate of over 90%.

As part of its efforts to reduce the waste and environmental impact created by packaging materials, CLC directed its design team to devise a kind of cardboard box that needs less raw material to produce and to improve the box’s structural elements to increase its strength. The team also determined how to design the boxes so that they could be repurposed, including as magazine holders and trash cans, after fulfilling their initial use. Another of their ideas was a box for e-commerce orders that can be sealed without tape, thereby reducing the amount of non-sustainable materials required to ship goods.

Through its circular-economy production model, which utilizes nearly 2 million metric tons of recycled paper a year, CLC seeks to create a “secondary forest.” Photo: Cheng Loong

In Taiwan, eight billion food containers are disposed of as waste each year, a worrisome number given that the island’s food safety laws require that each be made from virgin – rather than recycled – pulp. In 2019, CLC’s Zhubei mill in Hsinchu County became one of only two paper mills in Taiwan to be certified by the TEPA to recycle paper-based food containers, a difficult process that includes separating the thin layer of plastic coating from the paper outer shell. The plastic part is then transformed into recycled building materials, fuel, and eco-bricks, while the paper component is combined with other recovered paper for use in a wide range of products, including toilet tissue. Chen notes that more than 10,000 metric tons of recovered food containers underwent this process at the mill last year.

So can eco-conscious Taiwanese rest easy ordering their next meal from their favorite food delivery app, knowing that much of the packaging will be recovered? Yes, but they must stay vigilant in their recycling habits, says Chen, emphasizing that food containers should be cleaned thoroughly and recycled separately from general paper waste. While CLC has been providing guidance in recent years to its supply chain partners on how to improve their sorting processes, given the extra water needed to recover food containers, “correctly separating recycling at the source is very important,” Chen says.