The fes­tive sea­son is all about con­sump­tion. It’s an aus­pi­cious time to buy gold, con­sumer goods, a new car, a bike, get the house painted and upgrade the wardrobe. And, year af­ter year, fi­nan­cial news­pa­pers de­vote space to is­sues like how much money mar­keters spend on ad­ver­tis­ing, the sales gen­er­ated dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son, anal­y­sis and trends.

Are con­sumers buy­ing more on Flip­kart or Ama­zon? Are they buy­ing at big box stores like D-mart and Life­style or on­line? Are dis­counts driv­ing th­ese sales? Are they buy­ing big­ger tele­vi­sion sets? Are they spend­ing more? Are com­pa­nies ad­ver­tis­ing more? Th­ese and many more such ques­tions help de­ter­mine the chang­ing na­ture of con­sumer spends, be­hav­iour and In­dia’s evolv­ing con­sump­tion story.

The in­ter­est is un­der­stand­able. In­dia’s per capita in­come at $1,590 in fi­nan­cial year 2017 is com­pa­ra­ble to China’s in 2005. That is roughly around the time the lat­ter’s con­sump­tion story took off. To be sure, in the decades af­ter lib­er­al­iza­tion, In­dia’s con­sump­tion growth has al­ready more than dou­bled from 4% (1990-2002) to 11% (2003-14). More­over, non-food con­sump­tion has in­creased from 53% in 1990 to 69% in 2014, ac­cord­ing to Euromon­i­tor data (bit.ly/21bumib).

But while we con­sume more, the na­ture of con­sump­tion is also chang­ing. Con­sump­tion is of­ten taken to mean the pur- chase of goods and ser­vices from the mar­ket. The com­mon un­der­stand­ing is that buy­ing things brings happiness. There is even a term for it: re­tail ther­apy—the prac­tice of shop­ping to cheer one­self up.

How­ever, the act of buy­ing is not that sim­ple. Our pur­chases whether in­ten­tional or im­pul­sive say some­thing about us. The abil­ity to buy more things or more ex­pen­sive things than our peers sends out a mes­sage of suc­cess, sta­tus and po­si­tion in so­ci­ety.

Con­sump­tion is also a medium through which ci­ti­zens de­mand re­spect for their rights and those of other groups, says so­ci­ol­o­gist Joel Stiller­man in his 2015 book, The So­ci­ol­ogy of Con­sump­tion: A Global Ap­proach. For in­stance, the Swadeshi move­ment which was launched in the early 20th cen­tury was an im­por­tant part of the In­dian in­de­pen­dence move­ment.

In more re­cent times, glob­al­iza­tion has led to con­sump­tion tak­ing on po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal goals as well. The Make in In­dia ini­tia­tive that sup­ports in­dige­nous man­u­fac­tur­ing is an ex­am­ple. Even the ire faced by units of Coke and Pepsi in Ker­ala are in­stances of con­sumer cit­i­zen­ship.

Con­sumers are also wield­ing greater power over re­tail­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers, forc­ing them to adopt more eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able prac­tices, by show­ing a pref­er­ence for prod­ucts that are bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment. At Unilever, its sus­tain­able brands grew 40% faster than the rest of its port­fo­lio and de­liv­ered nearly half of its over­all growth, the maker of Knorr soups and Dove soaps said in its 2016 an­nual re­port.

Eth­i­cal con­sump­tion also in­cludes com­pa­nies do­nat­ing a part of their sales pro­ceeds to char­ity. For in­stance, Proc­ter & Gam­ble’s Shik­sha pro­gramme in In­dia con­trib­utes a part of the sale pro­ceeds from brands like Tide and Whis­per to­wards ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren. The com­pany has far do­nated over Rs22 crore, ac­cord­ing to its web­site (bit.ly/2vkyiww).

Con­sumers are also mak­ing life­style changes like turn­ing ve­gan or min­i­mal­ist. Ve­gans find fac­tory farm­ing cruel and in­hu­mane and be­lieve that an­i­mal agri­cul­ture de­stroys the en­vi­ron­ment and hence ab­stain from hav­ing an­i­mal prod­ucts in­clud­ing dairy and honey. Min­i­mal­ists be­lieve that happiness does not re­side in things. They con­sciously re­duce posses­sions in favour of ex­pe­ri­ences.

An av­er­age US house­hold has 300,000 things, from pa­per clips to iron­ing boards. Amer­i­can chil­dren make up 3.7% of the chil­dren on the planet but have 47% of all toys and chil­dren’s books, ac­cord­ing to pro­fes­sional or­ga­nizer Regina Lark (lat.ms/1r29ck6). In com­par­i­son, min­i­mal­ist Fu­mio Sasaki, the au­thor of Good­bye Things: The New Ja­panese Min­i­mal­ism, lives with just 300 items. This in­cludes his tooth­brush and hairdryer.

While it’s not al­ways fea­si­ble to em­u­late ei­ther the Amer­i­can model of con­sump­tion or even Sasaki’s min­i­mal­ism, it is clear that if we were to con­tinue con­sum­ing the same way as the US, then we would need four more plan­ets to sup­port the earth’s seven bil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Global Foot­print Net­work which cal­cu­lates an in­di­vid­ual’s eco­log­i­cal foot­print to come up with an es­ti­mate (bit.ly/2yghjgk).

Sus­tain­abil­ity though has al­ways been a core com­po­nent of In­dian cul­ture. In­dia is one of the least waste­ful economies, ac­cord­ing to Green­dex, a new in­dex com­piled an­nu­ally by Na­tional Geo­graphic and Globes­can, which mea­sures the way con­sumer pat­terns are re­spond­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns (bit.ly/2yi0pqm).

But this is also chang­ing. We have just started off on our con­sump­tion jour­ney. Fes­tive buy­ing re­mained buoy­ant in a slow­ing econ­omy. E-com­merce firms’ sales grew 50% over the last year, record­ing $2.2 bil­lion in sales in the one-month fes­tive sea­son un­til Di­wali, ac­cord­ing to Redseer Con­sult­ing. A telling sign of our con­sump­tion-led growth jour­ney. There is noth­ing wrong with that. But what it re­quires then is a com­pelling nar­ra­tive which is unique and ca­pa­ble of lead­ing the world into con­sum­ing things dif­fer­ently.

Shop Talk will take a weekly look at con­sumer trends, be­hav­iour and in­sights.


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