We’ve all seen the powerful images of residents in China’s most polluted cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dangerous levels of smog. But at last fall’s Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week, designers incorporated the respiratory gear into their shows: Dozens of models strutted down the catwalk in smog masks, while designer Yin Peng created masks for his models that perfectly coordinated with garments from his sportswear collection, CNN reported.
Yin told CNN that he was surprised his couture masks had attracted so much attention and said China’s poor air quality was not what inspired him to design the masks that complement his athletic gear.
"From my perspective, no matter how good the outside environment is, the key is how we mix the situation outside with our hearts," he told CNN.
Whether or not Yin intended to make a political statement or social commentary, his use of smog masks as fashion accessories highlighted China’s air pollution problem and the government’s failure to improve air quality.
Respiratory masks meant to shield against the harmful effects of air pollution are a multi-million dollar industry in China, according to Reuters. In 2013, Chinese consumers spent 870 million yuan ($140 million) on anti-smog devices like face masks and air purifiers on the country’s biggest e-commerce site, Taobao.
But most smog masks aren’t providing Chinese citizens much protection: A survey of consumer face masks by the China Consumers Association found that only nine out of 37 types tested met standards for filtering particulate matter and enabling easy breathing.
"The vast majority of face masks on the market give no protection against PM2.5, even if the manufacturers claim they do," Lei Limin, vice chairman of the China Textile Commerce Association, told Reuters -- referring to the type of air pollution that is most dangerous to human health.
Public awareness and concern about the health effects of China’s toxic smog is only growing, as is pressure on the government to take action.
Late last month, a biting documentary about China’s air pollution problem went viral in the country, garnering more than 300 million views in just under a week. “Under The Dome” – which was somewhat critical of the Chinese government for failing to enforce environmental regulations, but optimistic about finding solutions to improve air quality – only heightened the national debate, even when government censors eventually ordered the film be taken offline.
Yet, even as the Chinese government tried to squash the national conversation inspired by “Under The Dome,” government officials were making strides to address air quality. President Xi Jinping told legislators at the National People’s Congress that he would “give an iron hand to any polluters in this smog-choked country,” and Premiere Li Keqiang told parliament that the country would aim for zero percent growth in coal consumption.
And just last week the government announced it would close the last of its four major coal-fired plants in Beijing next year, in an effort to combat air pollution, Bloomberg reported. The facilities will be replaced by four gas-powered plants that will produce fewer emissions and can supply more than double the amount of electricity that coal plants can.
Harald Heubaum, lecturer in global energy and climate policy at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told Newsweek that the move was motivated not only by recent protests over air pollution, but also by economics.
“If people are sick more often [because of poor air quality] and can’t come to work, that has an impact on the economy,” Heubaum said.
Indeed, a report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate last year found that PM 2.5 air pollution was linked to approximately 1.23 million premature deaths in China in 2010 – costing around 13 percent of GDP in lost economic activity, Newsweek reported.
But, Heubaum told Newsweek, even as China is shutting coal plants in its eastern provinces, it will likely build new facilities in the country’s rural western provinces. So, is China serious about solving its pollution problem, or is it just saving face? One thing is for sure: If the Chinese government continues to put off its air quality crisis, officials will have an even bigger challenge on their hands, as Chinese citizens become bolder in their critique of poor environmental management -- whether it's in a documentary or on the catwalk of a fashion show.
Image credit: China Fashion Week
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.