China's Newest Market Opportunity: Pollution Control

DIY entrepreneurs have developed ingenious—and affordable—products to satisfy the public's insatiable demand for pure air.
Beijing's air pollution has forced residents to seek market solutions for relief. (Kim Kyung-Moon/Reuters)

It’s a rare “blue sky” day in Beijing. The city is bathed in a beautiful late-afternoon light—the kind that makes people rush outside just to enjoy it. But rather than bask in the weather, a small group of expats and Chinese locals have instead chosen to hole themselves up in a café.

With screwdrivers in hand, the group hacks away at cheap blue plastic fans. A moment later, they strap onto the fans’ standard issue HEPA filters, gauze-like panels that are as white as bridal veils. In less than five minutes—and for less than $30—they’ve managed to construct an air purifier that the instructor of this DIY workshop claims is just as effective as professional models selling for thousands of dollars.

One of the workshop’s participants, a 27-year old PHD student named Gu Yaobao, is particularly pleased with his new machine. “I don’t understand why the professional purifiers have to be so expensive,” he says. “I’ve only seen them being sold in the last few years. Before, I had no idea about the effects of pollution on my body. Now I hear about it on the news, all these respiratory diseases it can cause, so I’ve bought plants, facemasks, everything.”

The Chinese government recently announced that it will invest $275 billion—an amount equivalent to Hong Kong’s GDP—over the next five years to combat air pollution. But many in China aren’t prepared to wait, and are taking matters into their own hands.

Nearly 3 million air filters were sold in 2012, an increase of roughly 50 percent on the previous year. And following January’s “airpocalypse”—a particularly nasty stretch of gray skies—demand skyrocketed even further, with the electronics giant Suning reporting that sales of filters rose 170 percent in the first four months of this year from the same period last year.

The rush to capitalize on China’s dirty air isn’t limited to large retailers. Small start-ups such as O2ganic promise to “clean air, naturally,” with plant packages that come in a variety of themes, such as “Mediterranean” and “Near and Dear.” Thousands more air-filtering plants are hawked by hundreds of small shops on Taobao (China’s version of eBay), with vendors highlighting exactly how many milligrams of indoor pollutants their green specimens can eliminate.

Face masks are also popular buys on the e-commerce website and come in a multitude of shapes and styles, from cuddly, fluffy panda faces and cartoon expression protectors to serious black numbers which cover the nose and mouth and make the wearer look like a comic book villain. Some retailers are pushing consumer choice a step further, selling customizable and company-branded anti-pollution masks.

One company, PureLiving China, goes even further: They offer to completely pollution-proof offices and homes. For $500 to $800, they will carry out a complete diagnostic assessment of inside air and water quality (“It’s better to know”, says their tagline) and suggest solutions, ranging from photocatalytic and oxidation treatments to the humble green plant. Founded in 2010 by a Chinese-American, the company initially catered almost exclusively to expats, but in the last six months they have had a flood of inquiries from Chinese families. “In January, traffic to our website was 30 times the usual,” says company spokesperson James Westwood. “Finally the pollution problem is becoming public knowledge. In the past, people would blame gray skies on fog.”

Gabrielle Jaffe is a writer based in Beijing.

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