In a country so vast and so foully polluted as China, it is hard to know where to start cleaning it up.
Ma Jun decided to start with people: properly informed people. And that strategy has turned his small nonprofit organization into China's most respected – and feared – public watchdog, which has brought some of the world's biggest companies to heel.
"The real No. 1 barrier to environmental protection in China is not lack of money or technology," says Mr. Ma, one of the country's best-known environmental activists. "It is lack of motivation. We need the public to provide that motivation. But they must be informed before they can participate in any meaningful way."
Weakly enforced environmental laws
Ma developed his environmental chops on the ground, exploring – and sniffing – China's grossly degraded and polluted waterways as he researched a book, "China's Water Crisis," that revealed for the first time just how grave the situation is.
But it was in the more rarefied atmosphere of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he spent a year as a visiting world fellow, that he hit on a way of doing something about it.
In America and Europe, he learned, polluters had been forced to clean up their act by governments that passed and enforced laws, and by individuals who took persistent violators to court.
Neither of those routes was going to work in China, he realized.
"We have the laws and regulations, but enforcement remains very weak," he says. "Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental protection; even the courts are beholden to local officials, and they are not open to environmental litigation.
"So we can't go that way," he concluded.
Instead, he thought, the key was transparency. If enough people knew who was spewing what into China's rivers they might be able to put sufficient pressure on the polluters to shame them into better behavior.
'Information is key' to making an impact
"Ma understood that information is key," says Isabel Hilton, founder of ChinaDialogue, a website focused on Chinese environmental issues. "He saw that protest without information tends to make noise, not impact."
Back home, Ma set up a small nonprofit group, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), and began combing public records to compile an online database of companies reprimanded for pollution.
Those records have been swelled by a 2008 law that compelled local authorities to disclose pollution information; they do not all obey that law by any means, but more and more of them are releasing data that feeds IPE's user-friendly, easily searchable website, Ma says.
Today the site contains details of 96,000 violations.
Though local and multinational corporations are featured on IPE's "name and shame" list of violators, it was foreign firms, such as Panasonic, that reacted fastest, Ma recalls. They came to him to ask how they could get themselves out of the critical public eye.
"They have much bigger and more valuable brands, and they are more sensitive to public pressure," Ma points out. That made them more willing to pay for the changes in the way they disposed of their waste – verified by an independent environmental auditor – that were needed for them to get off the list.
Using the buying power of consumers
"He has worked out a subtle and effective engagement with polluters," Ms. Hilton says. "It's a very constructive engagement."
Chinese firms, though, were mostly unmoved. How could Ma find their pressure points?
He turned to consumers, leading a group of 41 nongovernmental organizations in the Green Choice Alliance that campaigned for shoppers to "pay attention to companies' environmental performance, and use their buying power to change it."
A 2010 campaign focused mostly on well-known Chinese companies that were found to have violated environmental laws and that were susceptible to consumer pressure – food and beverage firms, for example, or corporations in the personal care business.
Thirteen of the 20 targeted companies have taken corrective action or laid out their plans to do so, Ma says.
At the same time, he sought another way into Chinese corporate culture – by pressing big multinational corporations to ensure that all their Chinese suppliers met legal standards.
"For foreign companies, China is all about price," Ma argues. "They lure local suppliers to cut corners to win contracts, and that is very negative for China's environment; the more they buy, the worse it is. But if they raised their requirements on social and environmental performance they could become a positive force."
More and more of them are doing so. Global giants such as General Electric, Nike, Vodafone, Coca-Cola, and Sony now check their suppliers against IPE's list of violators and "push them to come to us to make public disclosures about what went wrong and how they will fix it," Ma says.
Even Apple pays attention
His biggest recent victory was Apple's disclosure last January of the 156 Chinese companies that supply it with parts – a list that the company had always insisted was confidential. Some of the suppliers were on Ma's list of violators. Apple, which had come under pressure from US activists because of a spate of suicides at one of the company's main suppliers, Foxconn, said it was suspending business with some of the most egregious environmental law-breakers, and pushing others to undergo environmental audits.
That sort of pressure is working more broadly, Ma says.
"Most of the 570 companies that have come to us" to propose remedies that would get them off the list "were afraid that they might lose valuable contracts with foreign companies," he explains.
Ma wins environmental prize
Identifying 570 companies out of an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 firms breaking environmental laws in China "is a drop of water in the ocean," Ma acknowledges. But he is not daunted. "We need to redouble our efforts," he says.
He will be encouraged by the news this month that he has won a Goldman Environmental Prize, the biggest worldwide award for grass-roots environmental activists.
The six annual prizes, which were first awarded in 1989, give a $150,000 prize to environmentalists working in the six inhabited regions of the world (Africa, Asia, Europe, islands and island nations, North America, and South and Central America) to help further their work. As in the case of Ma, Goldman winners often undergo considerable personal risk in pursuing their goals.
"[Ma] is very dedicated, very creative, and smart," says Lorrae Rominger, the Goldman Prize director. "Though IPE has no regulatory authority, they have succeeded in shaping corporate behavior in China."
"Our efforts are just a tiny level of experiment, but they work," Ma adds. "We should not underestimate the challenges. But we are small, and if we can do this with small resources, there is no reason for others to be cynical."
Adds ChinaDialogue founder Hilton: "Ma Jun operates on the principle that in a global world we are slowly moving to global standards.
"You cannot wave a magic wand and change China, but that is not a bad place to start."
• For more on Ma Jun's Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, visit his institute's website at ipe.org.cn/en.