Consumerism – a tradition of the West – finds traction in the East; the landscape is changing through globalization and liberalization. Consumerism definitely improves the economy. More demand leads to more production, creates more jobs, better packages and lifestyles; all to round back to more consumption.
But how ready are these countries, ecologically and societally for it? Eco – for ecological awareness – needs to echo in the East.
Perhaps focusing on the growing GDP in the Asian regions, the West might be centering on recuperating from their slowed economies first. In this scenario, the tried and tested approaches of consumerism are easy to apply where the consumers are in awe of the West. The advertisers use the same tactics to make people feel more empowered, successful and happier!
The once culturally conservative societies believing in savings and investments are smitten by the bug of “spend to buy happiness.” Cars, gadgets, clothes, accessories; consumers look for newer options, upgrades and do not mind raising debts with easily available credits. “Just for fun” buying is catching up in emerging countries like India, China, South Korea and Brazil. People are becoming more demonstrative of their new material possessions.
The countries in the East are undoubtedly developing fast, and people are becoming more affluent. However, many of these developing countries are in the red zone as far their ecological assets are concerned.
With over 1.2 billion population, India is a lucrative destination for the global marketers. As India develops and aspires to thrive, there are some perils that stand gaping wide. Such as its mere 2.4 percent land mass to sustain the world’s largest population (its population density is 382/square km to the world average of 46).
India needs bio-capacity of two India’s to produce and absorb its waste (Global Footprint Network and CII). A growing population and a flourishing economy, with soaring consumerism and accelerating development, pause significant and inevitable ecological threats to India. If they are not combined with “consciousness” and “sustainability”, doomsday may not be far.
IN THE PHOTO: Traffic in India. PHOTO CREDITS: Dr Vaish
An average Indian consumer is naïve, unaware and is mostly price conscious.
Questions of quality and durability are diluting with the increasing range of products in the market at affordable prices, bundled with discounts or schemes of “buy more, save more.”
The marketers are pushing heavy consumerism much like in the West. In competition, domestic marketers embrace similar strategies, while the trend grows into rituals, festivals and even spiritual contentment.
With a growing economy, there is an expanding middle class with double to quadruple incomes per family. The race is no longer about “survival”, but “acquisitions” and “ostentation.”
With “buy more” it is always “throw more” because the new sentiment is “adjust no more” which threatens the conservative value system of India to “reuse.” This irresponsible consumerism does not only impact the external environment but also fractures integrity and breeds negative competition.
Consumerism is growing deeper in city pockets and is also penetrating the rural areas. However, with more rural migrants in the urban areas (in need of education and job opportunities), it is a welcome situation for the sellers. The urban pollution, traffic and commotion are what a city dweller experiences every day.
Thirteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in India.
Urban areas need a breather through all-out sustainable efforts. It is also a paradox that the urban spaces which are bustling with noise, leave some people more and more isolated and confined. These are the disabled and old who find every street and commute rendered unsafe with rising traffic, chaos and insensitivity. While an average Indian family might be reaping the fruits of a rising economy and better lifestyles, the disabled and their family caregivers jostle to find their way out in the dramatically changing landscape.
Will the profit-making companies continue to ignore the silently suffering ecosystem? Is the societal divide made deeper by making consumers busy in the same ideology of “buy more to save more” and “have it all to be happy”? Do improved lifestyles with some fashion apparels and accessories flashing off cars or gadgets matter when the very basics of life – air, water and soil – get all polluted?
IMAGE CREDITS: Dr Vaish
The brands need to be responsible from the outset as they enter these markets. Businesses always have the opportunity to be sustainable at the core. Brands always have the power to influence societies and bring needed change. But, most of the time the issues pertaining to the environment and society are left for the Government to take care of.
Alternatively, there are some NGOs voicing out their protest in some communities, some science forums where research outreach mostly remains in the scientific community, or Arts exhibits where there are sensitivity and appreciation but no mainstream action. There is an opportunity to innovate, differentiate by doing some good.
The old formula of tapping on the feeling of “happiness through consumerism” should be passé. In the West, they have already experienced that pushing happiness through consumption leads to obesity, depression and other diseases. They can’t ignore developing countries’ struggle with infrastructure, food shortage, flooding, drought, overpopulation, corruption, pollution and so on.
In India, thankfully, there is, since 2014-15, a 2 percent mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rule. Since then, many brands have come forward to support child education, cleanliness and especially women uplifting or gender equality including the rights of LGBT. But then there is clamor and crowding in certain areas which is turning out to be more of a “green wash” or “pink wash”, rather than genuine, long-term impact.
IMAGE CREDITS: Dr Vaish
There are some interesting facts about these countries that can very well be integrated into communication strategies and product design. Their ancient wisdom, progress through science and innovation, and targeting the young population hold a huge potential to spin around.
So far, Indian consumers have maintained a frugal and sustainable lifestyle. Indians were the top-scoring environmentally sustainable consumers in the 2014 National Geographic/GlobeScan Consumer Greendex. The brands can take a look at these ethnic values.
In the Western region, the challenges after the economic slowdown are way too many. They are facing the conservative attitude where the younger generation is moving away from possessing to experiencing and sharing.
The demand is for healthier and greener solutions for people and the planet. The new wave of greener solutions or “Karma cleansing” does echo in the developing countries too (which culturally has been their lifestyle choice). But it dwindles in the massive population which is comprised of many naïve and not-so-conscious consumers.
In such a scenario what should the brands do? Unfortunately, unlike the West, India and many other developing countries cannot afford to rejoice in both consumerism and their natural wealth. India’s ecological assets are already in the yellow-to-red zone: be it soil, water or air. This is the scenario when so far Indian consumers (especially in the rural areas) have been a living frugal and sustainable lifestyle.
IMAGE CREDITS: Dr Vaish
The need of the hour is to build awareness and sensitivity around both people and planet. More and more sustainable brands should emerge to promote better and conscious lifestyles, thoughtful consumerism with end-to-end product traceability.
If the global marketers think “Profitability first and Sustainability later”, there may not be a second chance for the East.
“TRY for Good” (TFG) is a small initiative conceptualised to bridge the gap between Science, Arts and possible actions for sustainability, by raising awareness in the consumers and sellers. TRY stands for “The Responsible You” and while it consults organizations on sustainability through external and internal communications, it also organizes contests, workshops and meet-ups to for youth. TFG believes in the fact that humour and a fun approach has a better impact and buy-in. In principle, TFG is focused on the wellness of people and planet. But to narrow it down, it is aligned around the UN SDG goals of Responsible consumption and productivity and sustainable communities. It also focuses on reducing inequality. It is striving to achieve all this through communications and outreach, riding on science, traditional wisdom combined with Arts to engage youth.