Chinese ENGOs and the Heavy-Metal Pollution of the Consumer-Electronics Industry: Exploring the Constraining Factors


The heavy-metal pollution of the consumer-electronics industry has been a serious environmental problem in China. Since 2010, Chinese ENGOs have taken a few measures to address this challenge. Under the influence of other stakeholders, Chinese ENGOs have only played a limited role. To further explore the potential of domestic ENGOs, it would be necessary to understand how they have approached the heavy-metal challenge and why their contribution has been moderate. By using the method of “process tracing,” this paper presents a preliminary attempt to trace and generate localized knowledge of Chinese ENGOs’ approach and the influence of other stakeholders. Specifically, this paper divides the actions of Chinese ENGOs into the following three phases: initial participation, progressive involvement of MNCs, and collaborative tracking and online disclosure. Then, it traces the participation of Chinese mass media, domestic suppliers, local governments, and communities. It argues that the following six constraining factors have contributed to shaping the limited role of those Chinese ENGOs: (1) the complexity of the consumer-electronics supplier network; (2) Chinese ENGOs’ lack of leverage on MNCs; (3) Chinese ENGOs’ shortage of financial and human resources under a broad agenda; (4) domestic mass media’s lack of long-term interest; (5) reluctant participation of Chinese suppliers and local governments; and (6) conflicting interests within local communities. Three policy options for further exploring the potential of Chinese ENGOs are discussed, including financial and technical support, further engagement of international ENGOs, and supportive policy-making and interregional coordination by local governments.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. 1.

    Those manufacturing for first-tier suppliers are usually termed as second-tier suppliers. There could be multiple tiers of suppliers in a complex supply chain.

  2. 2.

    UNGC: “Supply Chain Sustainability,” (31 August 2020).

  3. 3.

    IPE’s website in English: (19 September 2020).

  4. 4.

    The accurate lists of participants, except ENGOs and those famous MNCs, were perceived as trade secrets.

  5. 5.

    The accurate data about manufacturing costs were deemed as trade secrets between MNCs and their suppliers. However, it was commonly agreed that MNCs took the majority of revenues.


  1. 1.

    Bolwig, S., Ponte, S., du Toit, A. et al. (2010). Integrating poverty and environmental concerns into value-chain analysis: a conceptual framework. Development Policy Review, Vol. 28, Issue 2, pp. 173–194.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Bozarth, C., Warsing, D., Flynn, B., & Flynn, E. (2009). The impact of supply chain complexity on manufacturing plant performance. Journal of Operations Management, Vol. 27, pp. 78–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Chen, Y., Zhang, Z., Shi, P. et al. (2017). Public perception and responses to environmental pollution and health risks: evaluation and implication from a national survey in China. Journal of Risk Research, Vol. 20, Issue 3, pp. 347–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Crittenden, W., Crittenden, V. & Pierpont, A. (2015). Trade secrets: managerial guidance for competitive advantage. Business Horizons, Vol. 58, Issue 6, pp. 607–613.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Cyranoski, D. (2019). Pollution cover-ups exposed in Chinese provinces. Nature, doi:

  6. 6.

    Davis, S. & Moosmayer, D. (2014). Greening the field? How NGOs are shaping corporate social responsibility in China. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Vol. 43, Issue 4, pp. 75–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Deng, Y. & Yang, G. (2013). Pollution and protest in China: environmental mobilization in context. The China Quarterly, Vol. 214, pp. 321–336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Dong, B., Gong, J. & Zhao, X. (2017). FDI and environmental regulation: pollution haven or a race to the top? Journal of Regulatory Economics, Vol. 41, pp. 216–237.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Du, Y., Liu, P., Ravenscroft, N. & Su, S. (2020). Changing community relations in southeast China: the role of Guanxi in rural environmental governance. Agric Hum Values, doi:

  10. 10.

    Eloot, K., Huang, A., & Lehnich, M. (2013). A new era for manufacturing in China. McKinsey & Company, (26 June 2020).

  11. 11.

    Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R. & Bel G. (2020). The global e-waste monitor 2020: quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)—co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam.

  12. 12.

    GCA. (2010). 2010 Study of heavy metal pollution by IT brand supply chain. (26 June 2020).

  13. 13.

    George, A. & Bennett, A. (2004). Case studies and theory development in the social sciences. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Gereffi, G. (2014). Global value chains in a post-Washington consensus world. Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 21, Issue 1, pp. 9–37.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Greer, J. & Bruno, K. (1998). Greenwash: the reality behind corporate environmentalism. New York: Apex Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Guttman, D., Young, O., Jing, J., Bramble, B. et al. (2018). Environmental governance in China: interactions between the state and “nonstate actors.” Journal of Environmental Management, Vol. 220, pp. 126–135.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Hauge, W. & Ellingsen, T. (1998). Beyond environmental scarcity: causal pathways to conflict. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 35, Issue 3, pp. 299–317.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    He, K., Sun, Z., Hu, Y., Zeng, X. et al. (2017). Comparison of soil heavy-metal pollution caused by e-waste recycling activities and traditional industrial operations. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol. 24, pp. 9387–9398.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Hertenstein, P. (2020). Multinationals, global value chains and governance: the mechanics of power in inter-firm relations. Routledge.

  20. 20.

    Homer-Dixon, T. (1995). Strategies for studying causation in complex ecological-political systems. Journal of Environment & Development, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 132–148.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Hsu, J. & Hasmath, R. (2017). A maturing civil society in China? The role of knowledge and professionalization in the development of NGOs. China Information, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp. 22–42.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Hu, B., Wang, J., Jin, B., Li, Y. et al. (2017). Assessment of the potential health risks of heavy metals in soils in a coastal industrial region of the Yangtze River Delta. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol. 24, pp. 19816–19826.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Hu, H., Qian, J. & Kavan, P. (2014). A study of heavy metal pollution in China: current status, pollution-control policies and countermeasures. Sustainability 6, pp. 5820–5838.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Huang, Y., Wu, F., Cheng, Y. et al. (2016). Crisis communication research in China mainland. In Schwarz, A., Seeger, M. & Auer, C. (eds) The handbook of international crisis communication research. Wiley Blackwell, pp. 269–282.

  25. 25.

    King, G., Keohane, R. & Verba, S. (1994). Designing social inquiry: scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton University Press.

  26. 26.

    Lam, W. & Schneemann, G. (2017). IHS Markit teardown reveals what higher Apple iPhone 8 plus cost actually buys. (26 June 2020).

  27. 27.

    Li, J., Zeng, X. & Stevels, A. (2015). Eco-design in consumer electronics: past, present, and future. Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 45, Issue 8, pp. 840–860.

  28. 28.

    McMahon, J. (2017). How an app is stopping pollution in China. Forbes, (26 June 2020).

  29. 29.

    Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of People’s Republic of China. (2017). Report on the information technology industry 2017. (26 June 2020).

  30. 30.

    Montabon, F., Pagell, M. & Wu, Z. (2016). Making sustainability sustainable. Journal of Supply Chain Management, Vol. 52, Issue 2, pp. 11–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Pacheco-Vega, R. (2015). Transnational environmental activism in North America: wielding soft power through knowledge sharing? Review of Policy Research, Vol. 32, Issue 1, pp. 146–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Rasche, A. (2020). The United Nations Global Compact and the sustainable development goals. Research handbook of responsible management, (31 August 2020).

  33. 33.

    Raymond, L. (2020). Carbon pricing and economic populism: the case of Ontario. Climate Policy, (19 September 2020).

  34. 34.

    Schrempf-Stirling, J. and Palazzo, G. (2013). Upstream corporate social responsibility: the evolution from contract responsibility to full producer responsibility. Business &Society, Vol. 55, No. 4, pp.491–527.

  35. 35.

    Shen, Y. & Ahlers, A. (2018). Local environmental governance innovation in China: staging “triangular dialogues” for industrial air pollution control. Journal of Chinese Governance, Vol. 3, Issue 3, pp. 351–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Steinberg, P. (2007). Causal assessment in small-N policy studies. Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp. 181–204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Tang, Z. & Tang, J. (2016). Can the media discipline Chinese firms’ pollution behaviors? The mediating effects of the public and government. Journal of Management, Vol. 42, Issue 6, pp. 1700–1722.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Tate, W., Ellram, L. & Kirchoff, J. (2010). Corporate social responsibility reports: a thematic analysis related to supply chain management. Journal of Supply Chain Management, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 19–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Tilt, B. (2019). China’s air pollution crisis: science and policy perspectives. Environmental Science & Policy, Vol. 92, pp. 275–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Tjernshaugen, A. (2011). The growth of political support for CO2 capture and storage in Norway. Environmental Politics, Vol. 20, Issue 2, pp. 227–245.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    van der Kamp, D. (2020). Blunt force regulation and bureaucratic control: understanding China's war on pollution. Governance, (19 September 2020).

  42. 42.

    Wang, R., Wijen, F. & Heugens, P. (2018). Government's green grip: multifaceted state influence on corporate environmental actions in China. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 39, Issue 2, pp. 403–428.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Wang, Z., Jia, H., Xu, T. & Xu, C. (2018). Manufacturing industrial structure and pollutant emission: an empirical study of China. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 197, part 1, pp. 462–471.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Wu, W., Wu, P., Yang, F., Sun, D. et al. (2018). Assessment of heavy-metal pollution and human health risks in urban soils around an electronics manufacturing facility. Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 630, pp. 53–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    WWF. (2018). Corporate Partnerships Report 2018. (26 June 2020).

  46. 46.

    Zhao, Y., Zhang, X. & Wang, Y. (2020). Evaluating the effects of campaign-style environmental governance: evidence from environmental protection interview in China. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Vol. 27, pp. 28333–28347.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Zhu, Q., Sarkis, J. & Lai, K. (2012). Examining the effects of green supply chain management practices and their mediations on performance improvements. International Journal of Production Research, Vol. 50, Issue 5, pp. 1377–1394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


(1) Shanghai Education Commission Chenguang Scholar Programme “The impact of industrial globalization on environmental governance in China” (16CG05), and (2) Shanghai Education Commission Research Innovation Project “Public-private partnerships in supply chain environmental management” (15ZS002).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yitian Huang.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Huang, Y. Chinese ENGOs and the Heavy-Metal Pollution of the Consumer-Electronics Industry: Exploring the Constraining Factors. East Asia (2020).

Download citation


  • ENGOs,
  • MNCs,
  • Heavy-metal pollution,
  • Consumer-electronics industry,
  • China