As part of a research project exploring future sustainability trends in the Asia–Pacific, I've found myself spending some time looking at Taiwan recently – a part of the world that, depending on your perspective, is either an independent nation, or a more progressive region of China.
The United Nations hasn't officially recognised Taiwan since it lost its seat in the UN to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1971, and only a handful of small nations like Belize and Guatemala do recognise its independent status. However, to all intents and purposes it has been operating separately from China for the past 50 years, and this has led to it having a very different outlook to its mainland neighbour, most noticeably through being much more outwardly democratic and capitalist than the PRC.
It's a fascinating part of the world, with an underlying approach to sustainability much closer to South Korea and Japan than to China. In fact, as well as a similar sustainability approach, it also has as many (if not more) cultural and social links with those two countries – with many of those links stretching back over many decades.
Like South Korea, it also has an ability to shift quickly – particularly if the shift supports the strengthening of Taiwan's identity as an independent nation.
From a sustainable development standpoint, this most obviously manifests itself through things like the desire for energy independence (that tends to lead towards a higher demand for renewables), and higher than average demand for organic food (driven by the desire for a safe and healthy supply chain – something that China is perceived not to have always provided for its people).
But it also manifests itself in a desire to be as strong and sustainable a country as it is possible to be, with a growing number of locally–based companies (and a select few multinationals) discovering that focusing on creating environmentally and socially responsible products can provide a clear competitive advantage in the Taiwanese market.
However, despite the forecast market for sustainable goods and services, the unique challenge Taiwan faces due to the fact it both is and isn't a country, means this market is currently challenging to grow to its full potential. Taiwan will need to find new and subtle ways round the limits Mainland China currently places on it – not least in finding strong and sustainable export markets for any sustainable goods it produces.
That said, it is only a few short decades ago that 'Made in Taiwan' was synonymous around the world with high quality electronics goods, when pretty much every western household would have at least one, normally several, products made there.
Given the infrastructure and progressive approach to commerce that already exists in the country, it is relatively easy to see them reclaiming a similar leading manufacturing position in the globalised economy; just one based around a future clean economy, rather than the disposable economy that the world is striving (and currently struggling) to leave behind.