It is a cloudy morning of July 2023, as I sit in the comfort of my home I can't help but reflect on the events of last week. India and many countries witnessed large scale destruction due to excessive rainfall and flooding. But it was not just a piece of news this time like most distant calamities are.
I witnessed the violent rise of the river close to home.
I saw how that river took away a large chunk of the park that I go to in the evenings.
The rains washed away the road to my mountain home and took acres of agricultural land with it.
I saw farmers across the Punjab plains digging their lands to channelise the flow of water, but failed to save their crops despite their collective efforts.
All this led to introspection about the omnipresent chatter of climate change and sustainability that surround us. However, this is not a blog on climate activism or a guide to sustainability. It is rather an attempt to understand the meaning of sustainability that we have collectively subscribed to.
The facade of Eco-consciousness
The last few years have seen a rise in consciousness. There is a lot of dialogue in the mainstream media around climate change and individual action towards reducing carbon emissions. We as a society are increasingly becoming aware of environmental issues due to large scale climate related destruction that has been in the news across the globe.
As a result, people are seeking out brands that prioritise sustainability. But the consumer is not yet investigating serious sustainability, their loyalty can be purchased with eco-friendly packaging, promise of up-cycled materials, and ownership of carbon footprint emissions.
As long as the brand publicises sustainability the consumer is not going to ask for accountability.
The Niche Circular Economy
Consumers are slowly embracing the concept of circular economy and there is an anti-consumerism trend that favours products that are designed for durability and repairability. There is a sudden rise in acceptance of second-hand or up-cycled goods. Consumers are adopting a more thoughtful and intentional approach to consumption, emphasizing quality, longevity, and emotional value. They favour products with a reduced environmental impact, support local businesses, and actively reduce waste. But, we as consumers have very limited visibility of the journey the products have after we have used them.
We take pride in wearing thrifted clothes but upgrade our phones every 6 months without a thought.
We make the responsible choice of buying an electric vehicle without questioning how the waste generated from producing e-vehicle is disposed of.
We consume organic food while sitting in apartments that were built on agricultural fields acquired from farmers.
So, the question "Are our choices truly sustainable?"
The Luxury of Conscious Consumerism
There is a favour towards clean and natural products in the FMCG space. Consumers want to buy natural, organic and clean-label products, including food, beauty, and household items. They are scrutinizing ingredient lists, avoiding artificial additives, and opting for transparently sourced products. We have new filters on e-commerce sites to facilitate these behaviours. Consumers are prioritizing experiences over material possessions, seeking ways to simplify their lives and focus on meaningful moments. They opt for experiential gifts, travel, and activities that create lasting memories rather than accumulating physical belongings. But, in all honesty haven't we all paid the green tax?
Organic choices are always more expensive.
Cotton clothes are more expensive than polyester substitutes.
Organic food is more expensive than the food produced with chemical fertilisers.
Natural building techniques are more expensive than building modern concrete structures.
So, is the choice of clean products as democratic as we would like to believe?
The cost of sustainability
The conversation of sustainability usually trickles down from large organisations like WHO and UN, through SDG goals that are defined by a handful of people from the developed world. Often developed nations like the USA with much larger carbon footprints expect developing nations like Brazil to preserve forests for the earth's sake and let go of the capitalistic development that has favoured so many developed nations.
I am not advocating capitalism here, all I am saying is that after milking a capitalist economy for years and after polluting seas for centuries and stripping down forests, is it fair to ask another nation to not cut their forest because mother earth needs that precious forest cover?
As a user researcher, I stumble upon these trends everywhere from FMCG, consumer durables, automotive and social sector. While these trends reflect the evolving consumer mindset and preferences, it's important to note that lived realities of various communities vary vastly across regions and demographics. Therefore, human factor analysis is necessary to understand how the demand for sustainability affects people from remote geographies and different economic classes. And more importantly, it is imperative to scrutinise the role governing bodies and institutes can play in enabling sustainability at the bottom of the pyramid without making unrealistic demands and enforcing implementation plans that may themselves be not sustainable.
I am not denying the fact that our individual actions can have a collective impact but I am rather questioning the accountability of action that has been put on the individual instead of large corporates and government.