Foreign brands grab big share of market to counter China’s choking smog

By Zhang Ye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/22 20:13:39

Fresh profits


China is choking on smog. The problem has reached the point that many residents can no longer ignore it. But with challenges come opportunities as demand grows for products to counter air pollution, such as filtration masks, air purifiers and herbal remedies. Some US and Swedish companies have already grasped the opportunity. Over a five-day period in December 2016, Internet retailer JD.com Inc sold about 15 million US-branded filtration masks. Other companies are also looking to cash in, signaling that competition in China's anti-pollution market is heating up.

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk across a footbridge over a highway in Beijing on January 6. Photo: CFP

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk across a footbridge over a highway in Beijing on January 6. Photo: CFP



Every winter, when severe smog blankets China, especially in the North China regions, sales surge for filtration masks, air purifiers, and just about everything else promising to stave off the harmful effects of air pollution.

From December 16 to December 20, the five-day stretch when China's air pollution was at its worst in 2016, domestic consumers bought 110,000 air purifiers through its online marketplaces, up 210 percent year-on-year, according to data from JD.com Inc.

Pills that moisten the lungs and suppress coughing also sold well, a jd.com PR representative told the Global Times on Thursday. And sales of devices that measure the amount of PM 2.5 in the air more than doubled.

PM 2.5 refers to particulate ­matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.

A 30-year-old Beijing resident surnamed Long spent much more on pollution-fighting products in 2016 than in 2015. Long said he spent more than 5,000 yuan ($727) on masks and air purifier in 2016, up from 1,200 yuan in 2015.

And he's far from finished. "I'm really paying more attention to my family's health. The severe air pollution problem, I think, cannot be easily fixed in the short term, so these preventive measures are crucial," Long told the Global Times on Wednesday.

After years of effort to cut coal consumption and the number of heavily polluting plants and vehicles in the city, Beijing experienced only 12 more "blue-sky" days in 2016 than it did 2015, the Beijing News reported on January 3.

In 2016, the capital city had 198 "blue-sky" days, but suffered 39 severely polluted days.

In 2016, only 20 percent of 338 major cities in China met national air quality standards, Hao Jiming, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said on Tuesday at a seminar in Beijing on low carbon development.

Cashing in

When US-based 3M Co entered China in 1984, the conglomerate probably never would've guessed that its dust-filtration masks, which were originally designed for workers, would become so popular among the average Chinese resident. If you had never heard of 3M, you might conclude from Chinese Internet comments that it was a successful anti-pollution mask brand, rather than a conglomerate engaged in industrial transportation, consumer electronics and civil infrastructure. 

In 2013, 3M's China unit accounted for about 10 percent to the company's global revenue of $30.9 billion, Bloomberg reported, citing 3M CEO Inge Thulin.

In 2014, 3M forecasted that Chinese people's demand for health and consumer products such as water filters and masks would drive up its sales in China three times faster than its total revenue, according to the Bloomberg report.

Western brands have taken a large slice of China's anti-pollution market, said Dai Saiying, a founder of a domestic air purifier start-up. In Dai's business, foreign companies control more than half of the Chinese market.

Honeywell, the US aerospace giant, makes the bestselling air purifier on the platform of jd.com, followed by Blueair from Sweden, data from jd.com showed.

Driven by hot demands every winter, Honeywell's sales of masks in China surged over 150 percent in 2016 from 2015, according to a statement the company sent to the Global Times over the weekend.

Long purchased a 3,500 yuan Blueair air purifier for his parents' home in Changchun, capital of Northeast China's Jilin Province, though he wasn't blindly following the trend.

"I think the foreign-made device, though more expensive, really does deliver much fresher air than domestic brands," Long said, who has a 699-yuan air purifier from Xiaomi Inc in his Beijing apartment. "I will add a Blueair in the apartment this year."

Coming competition

Western products have staked out a large claim on China's anti-pollution market, but they face growing competition from budget manufacturers and low-cost producers from Japan and China, Dai said.

Consumers like Li Qian, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, who wore 3M masks for years, has become a fan of masks produced by the Japanese gas respirator producer Shigematsu because they are more comfortable to wear.

There is currently a shortage of Shigematsu's dustproof mask, the DD11V-S2, according to merchants and consumers.

On China's largest online shopping bazaar Taobao, a merchant, who sold 2,440 Shigematsu masks in December 2016, said he is unsure when he will be able to restock the masks.

"I really want to try the DD11V, which I heard can efficiently filter harmful PM 2.5 particulate matters and is much more comfortable for the small Asian faces than 3M's masks," Li told the Global Times on Thursday. "The mask is in such hot demand among Chinese tourists that my Japanese friend told me that they're even selling out in stores in Tokyo."

Li's family lives in Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei Province, the country's most polluted capital city. Now that wearing masks has become a daily ritual, Li thinks it is time to think about more than a mask's effectiveness. Beauty and comfort come to mind.

3M, which sees safety as a mask's most important characteristic, has tried to make its masks as comfortable as possible "so that users not only need to wear them, but want to wear them," the company said in an e-mail to the Global Times on January 10.

The Japanese pharmaceutical company Kobayashi also has its eye on China's anti-pollution market. It plans to increase production of Dusmock, an herbal remedy for bronchitis and coughing, by 30 percent this year - equivalent of 1.1 million packets - to meet expected demand, especially in China, where air pollution poses a health hazard, Nikkei reported on January 12.

Kobayashi has already targeted Chinese tourists with point-of-purchase advertising, touting Dusmock as a solution to PM 2.5, in drug stores in January, according to media reports.

Both Long and Li are skeptical about the effectiveness of such remedies. "I don't think there is a medicine that can protect people from air pollution," Li said. "Besides, you really should not take medication with talking to a doctor."

 

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