China’s ‘Great Green Wall’ and the embrace of enterprise for a better world

At the edge of the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia, ferocious sandstorms whipped up by deforestation and global warming turn April into a monumental challenge for herders and farmers every year.

For decades, the sand has encroached deeper and deeper into China; today, desertification has conquered more than a quarter of Chinese land – affecting 400 million people. But hope is springing from an unlikely quarter: an army of half a billion gamers growing virtual trees on their smartphones.

The Ant Forest game, launched by e-commerce giant Alibaba, invites players to score points by recording low-carbon activities such as riding a bus or paying utility bills online. That allows them to cultivate a digital tree on green credits, tracking growth like a vegetal Pokémon. When the tree’s grown, Alibaba plants a real one – eventually adding up to a “Great Green Wall” of forests in the desert.

In September, Ant Forest, accessed through the Alipay super app, was awarded the United Nations’ top environmental honour – the Champions of the Earth Award. The accolade recognises a convergence of imagination and impact: over 100 million trees planted; more than 3 million tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

Ant Forest is at the frontlines of China’s emerging “business for good” – strategies for sustainability and inclusion that combine boundless ambition with commitment to tackle humanity’s challenges. They range from LGBT social networking app Blued, which offers HIV/AIDS education, to Broad Group’s eco-friendly prefabricated skyscrapers and financial services group Ping An’s empowerment programme for remote villages. The number of social enterprises certified by the non-profit China Charity Fair jumped from just seven in 2015 to 109 last year – still tiny compared with the West but a sign of growing momentum.

China’s path to economic greatness may be paved with environmental sins but its journey today will yield powerful solutions for a healthy planet and equitable world.

China’s 20th century growth story had physical capital at its core,” London School of Economics researchers Isabella Neuweg and Nicholas Stern wrote in a recent report. “China will transform again in the next 30 to 40 years but this time with well-being, quality and sustainability at centre stage.

Digital bridges to a better future

It is not just China’s huge economic weight that gives it impact clout. The key is nimble technological prowess, which enables both game-changing solutions and staggering reach for new ideas, via platforms such as WeChat – a messaging app with a billion active users.

There are concerns that China has begun to slack on sustainability, as the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord erodes multilateral approaches to climate action.

Yet the big picture continues to be one of China leading world-enhancing solutions – due to a combination of necessity, imagination and evolving social awareness. The government plays a key role, for sure, with regulatory frameworks and action plans for health and environment. Change itself, however, comes from China’s new wave of innovators and forward-thinking corporations, and its people.

Take Ping An. The insurance and financial services giant is at heart a digital pioneer, using AI and blockchain to invent mobile banking solutions that advance financial inclusion. It also plays a leading role in overcoming China’s dearth of quality primary care – through the Good Doctor mobile app – which matches users with high-calibre doctors. The platform has 300 million users. Ping An’s flagship social impact project deploys world-class digital prowess across China, bringing AI-driven education, healthcare and entrepreneurship solutions to poor villages.

Changsha-based Broad Group, meanwhile, is leveraging a different kind of technology to help ensure the lightning growth of China’s cities ends neither in climate tragedy nor a wasteland of seismic rubble. Broad Group’s prefab building technology allows it to erect 60-storey skyscrapers within weeks, combining safety with carbon footprint reduction.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, advantages of Broad Group’s buildings include “resistance to 9.0 magnitude earthquakes, using six times less materials, being five times more energy efficient, with 20 times the air purification, and only producing 1 per cent of the construction waste.”

It is Alibaba, however, based in the vibrant second-tier city of Hangzhou, that perhaps best captures the promise of Chinese tech-for-good.

Ant Forest combines playfulness, digital smarts and social commitment – things that a generation ago may not have ranked high in the world’s view of China. One key is competitive spirit. It encourages friends, family and colleagues to prove who’s the greenest gamer of them all: “If I see a friend with eight trees,” laughs one young woman who plays the game and is in a video online, “I want to plant eight trees as well.”

An aerial drone photo brings home the impact: a great wave of trees pushing back the dunes of the Tengger desert, one of Asia’s most punishing environments.

Initiatives like Ant Forest tap into the best of human ingenuity and innovation to create a better world,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in awarding the Champions of the Earth Award.

Power of the people

As Ant Forest suggests, it is China’s people who are a fundamental driver of business that fosters a better society. Even amid Chinese complaints, proliferating on social media, about Western bullying, there’s no doubt that Chinese attitudes toward responsible development are fast maturing. In fact, a study by market research group GfK suggests a new vein of green-consciousness among Chinese consumers.

Surveying more than 28,000 people in 23 countries, Gfk reported that 80 per cent of Chinese respondents believe brands have a responsibility toward the environment – compared with 66 per cent in the United States. More than 70 per cent of Chinese respondents claim they buy products that match their values and ideals, against 54 per cent in the US.

China’s consumer narrative is being driven by Millennials and Generation Zs – more global, individualistic, tolerant and ecologically-minded than their elders. Digitally savvy, they mobilise millions on WeChat and Weibo. Like their Western counterparts, they know they’re the ones saddled with an ailing planet – and support initiatives to reverse the tide.

China’s young are empowered by education initiatives, such as Chinese University of Hong Kong’s MBA programme, which trains the next generation of entrepreneurs to innovate for good – and think differently about the role of business in society.

According to Frank Pan, senior associate at Sustainalytics, an ESG research and ratings firm, Millennials will lead positive change in China as they gain economic clout. That means China’s explosive green bond market – which went from non-existent in 2015 to world-leading the following year (accounting for a quarter of all issuances) – should be on a long-term growth trajectory.

We expect that demand and interest for sustainable investment in China will grow as Millennials control an increasingly larger part of social wealth,” says Pan.

A kinder, gentler China

China’s path to a more inclusive society is mirrored in the story of gay social networking app Blued – which combines social enterprise with business growth. In the 1990s, founder Geng Le led a double life as a police officer by day and a gay man navigating secret LGBT online portals at night. At the time, gay sex was considered a crime and homosexuality a mental illness.

In 2000, Geng Le launched a blog he developed into a discussion forum for China’s LGBT community. The Blued platform flourished but its success cut short Geng Le’s career: his bosses discovered the website and fired him.

Geng Le’s next move made Chinese social enterprise history. He relaunched Blued as a social networking platform in 2012 and tapped a current of unmet need: today it’s valued at $600 million with 30 per cent of its 40 million active users overseas, in countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, and as far away as Brazil.

It’s more than a social media and dating platform. Blued provides services such as HIV/AIDS education, fertility assistance and guidance on tackling discrimination. It works with the government’s Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention to offer HIV screenings and anti-discrimination programs.

Last year, Blued raised $100 million in Series D funding. Now it’s planning an IPO that could lift its value to over $1 billion. The success reflects a fundamental point shared with Alibaba, Ping An, Broad Group and others: business for good is compatible with outstanding returns.

Blued’s profitability,” Geng Le and two co-authors wrote in an article for the Stanford Business Review, “does not jeopardise its social mission.