Beijing was once so notorious for poor air quality that visitors would acquire the “Beijing cough”. Ahead of the Olympic Games in 2008, factories in six nearby provinces were ordered to shut down to achieve rare blue skies. But more frequent clear skies require long-lasting commitment from government and industries.

A Chinese NGO has been using online maps to pressure local governments and factories to tackle environmental pollution. The Institute of Public and Environment Affairs (IPE) has mapped more than 1.4 million violations, and convinced more than 1,800 factories in China to address their polluting practices, such as dumping toxic waste into rivers.

The institute’s founder and director Ma Jun has since been dubbed one of China’s most effective environmentalists for his role in partnering with the Chinese government and corporations. Ma discusses how crowdsourced data and public participation have helped hold multinationals accountable and get the government to sit up.

Mapping factory pollution

IPE began in 2006 as an effort to publish government data on factory pollution online in response to a lack of enforcement of pollution standards. Initially they faced stiff opposition from both local companies and local governments focused on economic growth, Ma says. “When we tried to engage as an NGO, they just simply said: ‘This is not very important to us.’”

They owe their eventual success to public pressure to clean up China’s cities. IPE’s work coincided with greater public and government attention to pollution in China after the 2008 tainted milk scandal and 2013 “airpocalypse” in Beijing. Citizens’ anger was directed towards polluting factories near the cities and IPE’s data helped build up tremendous social media pressure on Weibo.

The turning point came in 2011 when government agencies began to seek collaboration. “I still remember the time we got a phone call in Shandong, saying that the head of the local Environmental Protection Bureau wanted to have a conversation with us,” says Ma. “We were a bit nervous.” The government officials extended an invitation to tackle pollution in the province. “The head of the bureau said, ‘We need people to join the effort.’”

Now, IPE has made information about pollution more accessible to the public than ever, with a slew of mobile apps and online tools. It publishes a map tracking in real-time factory violations and pollution in air, water, soil, and sea. Another mobile app allows citizens to report polluted river water. Citizens can upload pictures and get a government response within seven working days. “Our app is connected with the reporting process run by ministries,” says Ma.

Last year, IPE launched the Green Supply Chain map linking multinational corporations to their suppliers’ environmental performance. IPE also publishes annual reports ranking city governments and major corporations on environmental performance.

Lessons for Asia

Can IPE’s success be replicated in other countries? With global manufacturing moving out of China and to other Asian countries like India and Vietnam, it will be increasingly important to continue to hold corporations accountable. “The lesson learnt in China is a harsh one,” says Ma. “We should try to tap into the solutions that have been developed in China to solve the problem.”

Like many countries in Asia, China does not have a history of public participation in governance. Both corporations and local governments in China used to candidly dismiss environmental protection in favour of economic growth. But companies and brands came on board after rising public awareness, which was facilitated by open disclosure of data.

In 2011, IPE put out a series of reports on the IT industry’s environmental violations, including the disposal of toxic waste from manufacturing. The pressure led to Apple cleaning up its most polluting factories by implementing a state-of-the-art system to process waste without toxic discharge.

Consumer pressure for transparency has led other multinational companies, including Nike, Levis and Tesco, to do the same. They are now on IPE’s Green Supply Chain map, where consumers can see in real-time whether the company is violating environmental standards, and give feedback on corrective actions.

Ma Jun stresses the importance of data and transparency. The choice to disclose in real-time and source data from government was crucial, as it made it difficult for companies to dismiss the accuracy and credibility of the pollution data. “Transparency is a prerequisite for meaningful public participation,” he says.

Building partnerships

IPE’s relationship with brands has also become more collaborative as their role has shifted towards one of environment consultants to suppliers. Factories come to IPE to ask how they can improve their ranking. “We suggest that companies clearly showcase to people that they want to resolve the pollution. Then people will trust that they want to solve the problem.”

Countries that lack the capacity to collect pollution data can use public pressure to make sure brands self-monitor and disclose information, he adds. It remains more efficient to work with brands instead of individual factories as a single brand may have hundreds of suppliers. IPE hopes to collaborate with local NGOs to pass on technical knowledge about how to create tech tools.

IPE’s newest projects have been in green finance, automating data disclosure, and e-commerce. They have developed a prototype for investors to understand the environmental impact of the companies they work with.

Another system allows brands to screen suppliers for environmental compliance using real-time notifications on violations and public feedback. In the future, IPE also hopes to work with major e-commerce platforms to map out the environmental impact of products over their entire life cycles.

Beijing’s air quality has improved since the 2008 Olympics, with more frequent forecasts of blue skies. “We can envision a time when all these companies, wherever they are, will always be monitored,” says Ma. “Pollution knows no boundaries, and sustainability matters to all of us.” IPE’s approach shows that it is possible to get governments and companies to pay attention.