Can Vietnam go green?

Vietnam has strong opportunities to grow environmental engagement, writes Shazma Gaffoor.

Like many Asian nations, consumer power is rapidly growing in Vietnam, but it has come at a price. With the country’s development on the rise, its pollution level has accelerated, and carbon emissions have doubled over the last decade. This has made the pace of economic growth difficult to sustain.

Vietnam has a population of over 96 million and an alarming 60,000 deaths each year are attributed to causes aggravated by air pollution, with its two major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, listed in the ‘top 15 polluted cities in Southeast Asia’. The air quality in Vietnam has also been identified as “moderately unsafe” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which attests to the gravity of this nation’s problem.

Transportation has been identified as being the main cause of pollution in Vietnam. The country has 3.6 million automobiles and 58 million motorbikes, many of which are old, lack modern emission control technology and emit large amounts of visibly black air pollutants into the environment.

“I grew up in Hanoi, one of the most polluted cities in Vietnam, and there are days when the air is so dense with pollution that you can hardly see very far ahead,” says Dr Ninh Nguyen, lecturer in Marketing in the La Trobe Business School. “The government and environmental groups try to improve the air quality, but they’ve made little progress, and if you live with it your entire life you unfortunately get used to it.”

Dr Nguyen has recently conducted a study on the environmental incentives of consumer behaviour in Vietnam while collaborating with researchers at the Vietnam University of Commerce. He believes western countries have been the prime focus of these studies without much light shed on Asian emerging markets.

The study was conducted in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City using in-depth interviews and paper-based surveys. Resulting data reported that the majority of consumers seem to be more concerned about personal benefits rather than environmental benefits.

“We particularly focus on two types of pro-environmental behaviour - energy efficiency behaviours and organic food consumption,” says Dr Nguyen. “Both of them are good for the environment, and promoting such behaviours is essential for environmental sustainability.”

The study found that Vietnamese consumers had a reduced level of environmental awareness when compared to similar surveys conducted in western countries, with some basic awareness of the purpose of energy rating labels as well as having access to certified organic products.

“In terms of consumer behaviour, we found out that not many consumers are aware of the benefits of such products for the environment,” says Dr Nguyen. “When considering energy efficient advantages, they think of saving money, but they don’t really care about the impact on environment as much.”

“We found similar responses when we investigated attitudes towards organic foods. Respondents believe it is good for their health, but they don’t care about how organic farming is benefitting the environment.”

Some of the key influences regarding the lack of interest in organic foods was the general attitude towards the environment, the limited availability of produce, extra effort of having to shop in specialty stores. as well as going against their normal diets and habits.

With energy efficiency, people were deterred by the higher price of energy efficient appliances, limited availability and  low confidence in energy rating labels.

“While the current study is by design more exploratory, it does give us useful data with which we can draw a comparison between Vietnam and western countries,” says Dr Nguyen. “From my observations, mainly in Australia, people in these (western) societies care strongly about the environment. It has a positive impact on purchase intention and behaviour, and this is a main point of difference with Vietnam.”

The findings of this project will also assist key stakeholders in identifying environmentally conscious consumers in Vietnam and developing effective strategies to promote the purchasing of eco-friendly products.

Dr Nguyen hopes that such strategies could be developed and implemented jointly by governmental organisations, marketers, sustainability campaigners, and social institutions.

“The responses prompted us to suggest to policy makers and marketers the need of educational or information programs to increase consumer knowledge and awareness about the benefits of such products,” says Dr Nguyen. “This is important not just for consumers themselves but for society as a whole. When you have a better environment to live in, it’s good for everyone.”

Dr Nguyen’s ultimate goal is to design environmental awareness programs in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the surveys were conducted. A further survey to be conducted in the city of Da Nang has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, with less air travel, tourism being scarce and the closure of industries, the quality of the air has significantly improved, so we may look at how consumers view this change in air quality in Vietnam,” says Dr Nguyen. “Because we already have the data from before the pandemic, we can then collect the data from the same respondents to see if it has affected consumer knowledge and awareness of the environment.”