China's anti-pollution tech is going premium, but it can't make dirty air go away | Tech News
Behind a red wooden door, down a Beijing alley, lies what is allegedly the cleanest air spot in the smog-sodden city. Numerous air purifiers gently whir in the Breathing Space Courtyard, in the Chinese capital’s Beixinqiao area.
Dotted around the courtyard’s main building, which houses the headquarters of Beijing startup Origins Technology, are small, sleek alarm clock-like monitors showing air quality index (AQI) readings. Called Laser Eggs, these 499 yuan (£53) monitors display flicking numbers that seldom go above 10, showing officially “excellent” air quality levels, according to the scale recognised by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Claiming to use technology “typically only found in air quality monitors priced upwards of $5,000”, the Origins Technology egg works by using a small fan to pull in air through the unit. A laser cuts through the air and is linked to a sensor which detects information about the size and number of particles in the air.
Origins Technology, which launched in 2013, doesn’t reveal precise sales figures but says it has sold “tens of thousands” of the Laser Eggs since they hit the market last July. Now sold in Apple stores across China, they are symptomatic of a sharp increase in pollution awareness across the country and a recent boom in the air purification industry.
The year 2013 is sometimes referred to by Beijingers as the “airpocalypse” year: a particularly terrible time for pollution in the city that caused many to move away or rush to buy air purifiers.
Pollution was basically “denied” in China before 2013, says Thibaud Andre, research associate at China-based market research firm Daxue Consulting, which produces market reports for foreign retail firms. But after the airpocalypse, Chinese leaders and the media started to speak about pollution. “Then in January 2015 the mayor of Beijing, Wang Anshun, said Beijing was ‘not a liveable city’. That’s a big statement,” says Andre.
In line with the increase in public awareness of the problem, the government has vowed to tackle the chronic pollution “with all our might”. Authorities have introduced a new environmental law aiming to tackle the problem at its root but critics say it is not enough. December saw “red alert” measures taken in Beijing over smog, with cars taken off the roads and factories ordered to stop or scale back production.
Domestic air purifiers were almost unheard of in China before 2013. But, according to Daxue Consulting, the China air purification industry (which includes domestic and office purification products) shot up in value to 3.5bn yuan (£384m) that year. And in 2014 the number of air purifier brands operating in China leapt from 151 to 556.
Following the 2013 boom, the air purifier market was flooded with low-quality products as companies scrambled for a piece of the action. Technology giants such as Xiaomi, which started selling air purifiers in 2014, aggressively entered the market with mass-market, low-cost products designed to undercut their more premium rivals.
According to Daxue Consulting, from 2014 to 2015 the overall market dropped in value by 15%-20% and in sales volume by just under 10%. According to market research company China Market Monitor, the number of air purifier units sold in China dropped 18% in the first half of 2015 following 5.1m unit sales in 2014.
One factor contributing to this dip was improving air pollution levels – the average AQI reading in Beijing fell to 156 in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 208 in the first quarter of 2013. Another factor, identified by Daxue, was customer trust in high street-sold purifiers being eroded. This was typified by Chinese media’s reporting of a Xiaomi filter, which works with a smartphone app, allegedly displaying incorrect AQI readings.
Rise of high-end purifiers
However, amid the slight downturn, high-end air purifier companies such as Dyson posted record China sales figures, suggesting a new premiumisation of the market.
In 2015 Dyson saw revenue rise by 220% in China. Having entered the country three years ago, the company’s boost was partly down to introducing Dyson purifying fans to the market in 2015. The fans filter pollutants from the air, blasting cold purified air around homes in the summer and hot purified air in winter.
Much of the firm’s appeal lies in its innovation – it has developed a micro fibre glass filter that it claims captures 99.95% of particles as small as PM0.1: ultrafine particle matter. Most air purifier firms focus on filtering larger PM2.5 particles, which have been linked to cancer and heart failure. Dyson claims its products go above and beyond usual standards. The company’s units retail for around 5,200 yuan-5,600 yuan (£560-£615).
Max Conze, Dyson’s CEO, said in an email to The Guardian that the company was “bullish, always” about further China growth. “People respond well to new technology that solves a genuine problem and works differently to anything else out there.”
This trend towards higher-tech products could be set to continue as the Chinese air purification industry’s first national standards were introduced in March, outlining minimum clean air delivery rates (CADR) for purification products. Some analysts predict that the move will sweep away the flood of low-quality, low-cost purifiers.
Sticking plaster solution?
Bengt Rittri, founder of Blueair – China’s market leader for air purifiers with a focus on high-end models – says there has been a fundamental shift in how most of the Chinese population views pollution. The path is in place for air purifiers to become as common as fridges in households across China, he says. He believes the premiumisation of the market will lead to a long-term stabilisation in consumer confidence in air purifiers in the country.
While the market for air purifiers remains niche as many lower-income Chinese people are unable to afford these high-end products, lower-cost models that pass the new standard requirements will still be available to customers who can’t afford the top-end products. If the new standards are effectively enforced the rise in quality should cut through the whole price range.
The rise of anti-pollution innovation could be seen as a sticking plaster to the issue of pollution in China – it does not address the root causes of the problem – but while the chronic problem shows no signs of going away a new, regulated market for air purifiers could be an important development.