The Golden Ticket Yields Plenty of Green: A tour of a Chinese factory brings energy savings to light

“Check this out.”  Our industrial engineer had removed the side panel from an injection molding machine to show me the outdated motor chugging inside.  “There is no reason for this thing to still be in operation.”

We were in Dongguan City – in the heart of China’s Pearl River Delta – where the bulk of consumer goods for export originate.  The machines were cranking out casings for Christmas lights, hundreds at a time.   Chances are the lights on your house, or tree, or dorm room wall framing that blacklight Hendrix poster, began here – particularly if you bought them from any major retail outlet in the United States, like Walmart.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is currently working to improve the environmental performance at the 30,000 Chinese factories that supply Walmart and building a purchasing system that rewards suppliers with environmentally preferable products. A tour of one of these factories revealed the opportunities for potential energy savings in China, now the world's biggest energy user.

“Now look at this one.”  He walked me over to an identical machine ten feet away.  We crouched down with flashlights to take a closer look.  “Now that’s more like it.”  Inside was a sleek motor with a variable speed drive, humming away.  The digital electricity meter that he’d attached revealed his point – the machine was using half the energy to perform the same job.

It wasn’t just the injection molders; it was the air compressors, the lights, the heating and cooling.  “We can cut the energy use by 40% here without trying all that hard,” he concluded, scratching his beard.  “It isn’t rocket science.”

He’s right.  After visiting nearly 300 factories in China that supply major global retailers we’ve come to understand the opportunity is massive, the solutions are available, and the benefits to the Earth and the bottom-line will be substantial.

In visiting these factories, we’ve catalogued the biggest energy uses (or “hot spots”), the menu of available technologies to improve efficiency, and the estimated payback periods on those investments the managers can expect.  At the Christmas light factory, we determined that swapping out all those old motors on the molding machines – that account for nearly 80% of total energy use – could pay for itself in just about six months.

Six months.

While that is pretty fast, it’s not extraordinary for Chinese manufacturers.  Virtually every change we recommend has a simple payback of less than two years, and in most cases around a year and a half.  There are literally tens of thousands of factories like this in China, ripe with energy efficiency opportunities using mature, tested and affordable technologies.   Our plan is to make these opportunities known, provide scalable solutions, and transform the way manufacturers measure and manage their energy use.

Sounds pretty audacious… and it is.

To be sure, significant challenges exist:  budgets for capital expenditure are low, technical capabilities are often not very advanced, and finance options are not mature.    But, the wind is at our back.  With the Chinese Central Government announcing its goal late last year to cut greenhouse gas pollution 40-45% by 2020 and Walmart calling for a 20% reduction in energy use by 2012 – a target EDF helped shape – factories are starting to get the message  and are “caught between the chopsticks” as a Chinese colleague once quipped.

Even more, the factories themselves are beginning to see the value of saving energy, particularly as they understand how much it can lower costs, enhance productivity, and improve the environmental conditions in which they both live and work.  It is a process EDF is excited to accelerate.

Besides, we want those college kids to feel better about their Christmas lights – we wouldn’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow.  Dude.

For information on EDF's work with Walmart and its supply chain, please visit


  • This is really impressive work. What is good for the environment is good for us.
    Keep it up EDF+Walmart. A great tap on the back for taking some responsability.


  • Joe | 8 years ago

    Seeing that the world's most busiest factories can cut 40% of their energy sue is great to hear! If they can do it what can each of us improve in our homes and offices?


    University of San Francisco – 100% online
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  • our christmas lights this 2010 would be made up from light emitting diodes which does not generates so much heat–"

  • it is wise to choice to select Light Emitting Diode christmas lights becaue they are not fire hazard ::`

  • Mekhong Kurt | 7 years ago

    I not only hope the EDF and Walmart keep this up, but if anything, widen the effort, including in the U.S.

    And it would be mighty nice if *other* large corporations followed suit.

    There's much each of us as individuals as well. I gradually changed my electricity and water usage, reducing the amount considerably, and am pleased to say that my bills for the two run around 1/3rd what they were when I started about 3 years ago. I don't have any idea how much pollution is reduced by my lone efforts, but surely if people all over the planet started doing the simple, painless stuff we can do, often at little or no outlay of any money. Further, those who work might be able to take a look around their places of work and come up with some easy ideas to implement — packaged as saving the employer money rather than as a save-the-planet move, or at least with more emphasis on the financial rewards than on the environmental ones.

    BTW, I've long thought Walmart gets far too little recognition for efforts such as those mentioned in this article. (There are some others, too, of course.)

    Enjoyed this piece.

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