Conscious consumption is on the rise in certain clusters of urban India but it’s not enough to combat the effects of excessive consumerism. We examine the trend and find out why it needs to be stronger and broader than it currently is.

A 1975 study on the characteristics of a socially conscious consumer defines them as a person ‘who takes into account the public consequences of his or her private consumption or who attempts to use his or her purchasing power to bring about social change.’ 

Is there a ‘conscious consumer’ in India? If there is one, it is limited to a select cluster of people, largely from the urban upper or middle-class. They support organic retail, plastic bans and upcycling clothing, live in energy-sufficient buildings, and have strong views about water conservation (preferring to nourish their plants with bath water and kitchen compost). While commendable, is this movement powerful enough to trigger a complete transformation in how we consume? 

It seems unlikely, given prevailing trends. Consumerism, defined as a general inclination among a population to buy products and goods in excess of basic needs, is not likely to come down anytime soon. In fact, India may soon move up from being the sixth largest to being the third largest consumer economy in the world – trailing only the USA and China – by 2025, according to a Boston Consulting Group study. This growth is driven largely by growing affluence and the shifts in consumer lifestyles and behaviour that this affluence enables.

So, while there are stirrings of conscious consumption playing out in a “miniscule” fashion in urban cities, there’s a majority that has “normalised” consumption, says development consultant, Nirupama Sarma. 

This kind of ‘no holds barred’ consumption, along with all its environmental implications, is getting some pushback in different areas. A Guardian opinion piece criticised people’s unhealthy appetite for travel and advised tourists to think very hard about why and how they are travelling. The desire for ‘authentic’ travel experiences often comes at the expense of ecological and civic balance in many places. For example, the annual Jaipur Literature Festival is now being vehemently opposed by residents in the Pink City for the pricing disruption it creates – with retailers and hotels hiking prices indiscriminately – and the mess that visitors leave this heritage city in.

Anita Ratnam of NGO Samvada, who conducts a course on ‘responsible consumption’ for young people, and shares expertise to set up sustainable enterprises for waste management or rainwater harvesting, believes that consumers need to be mindful of “indirect consumption”. If there is a proposal to build roads with plastic waste or fly ash, we need to educate ourselves enough to ask: who is going to pay the price for it?

Someone, somewhere is always paying the price, Ratnam points out. It is then critical to be guided by certain parameters while buying a product. “We should question the manufacturing process and its impact on the planet. The onus should not only be on the manufacturer but the consumer as well,” she says. In her view, it is a collaborative role – with consumers needing to question practices as much as producers have to shun the most polluting ones. 

“Viscose material, for example, is most unfriendly because it is made by crushing bamboo, which is an extremely chemical and polluting process, while clothes made from vegetable dyes utilise more energy efficient ways of manufacturing. Unfortunately, we have adopted the first world culture of acquisitiveness and use and throw,” rues Ratnam. 

“If we live like the West, we will require three more planets to live in”, says Sagar Dhara, an environmental engineer and risk analyst, who questions the logic of human “ownership rights” over Earth. It is true that no other species has the same sense of entitlement when it comes to its interaction with nature. With many natural resources dwindling rapidly due to human actions (for example, we are removing 40,000 sq. km of forest cover every year), it is imperative that we reduce our energy and material consumption by 50%, Dhara says. In coming up with this estimate, he is drawing on figures provided in peer-reviewed science journals. In his view, conscious consumption should be encouraged but far more drastic measures are required to really make a difference.

The larger picture may be difficult for most people to entirely comprehend or stay focused on, but if we want to significantly reduce our individual carbon footprints, we have to align our intentions, thoughts, words and actions towards mindful and conscious consumption. It should become a way of life. When we shop as a consumer, it should be the purchasing equivalent of casting a vote for the type of world we want to live in. 

Kavitha Shanmugam is the Chief Content Curator at The PRactice....