Why are we such happy consumers?
Let’s accept it. Being in a developing country like India, where prosperity is directly linked to economics, the term ‘sustainability’ does not hold much strength. Wherever the economic numbers seem to be dipping – whether in the country’s GDP or the balance sheet of a corporate group – the ‘sustainability’ aspect gets short-changed and issues relating to environment, etc., go on the backburner. Profits take precedence over the planet.
As a concerned and conscious citizen, I find this disturbing. At the same time, if I see the same from the perspective of a business owner (or even the government), I see that businesses are delivering what consumers demand or expect. Apparently, businesses across the globe, especially the consumerfocused ones, are consistently growing, which means consumers are generally happy with the producers of what they consume.
The point here is that although consumers are becoming more aware of their rights, they are not conscious enough yet – they aren’t yet questioning brands about their sustainability practices. They do not really get bothered by ‘malpractices’ as long as the product that they buy is good and economically viable. We can say that consumers are exercising their rights but forgetting their responsibilities.
Let me give you an example. Buying a new car is an important decision that you arrive at after much research. Among all the things that you look at, the sustainability commitment of the brand is probably not even the last factor. Recently, one of the well-known automobile brands had been charged of concealing emissions information (they installed hi-tech devices that altered real data of their vehicles) in order to meet norms. The brand had received major criticism in international media and saw environmentalists staging protests in front of their facilities. However, it did not affect the sales graph of the brand, at least not in Asia-pacific, especially in India. It walked away by paying penalties that did not make any dent in their profits. Why? Because practically none of their practices mattered to their consumers, as long as the brand’s sedan provided the comfort that they expected.
There are hundreds of such examples from across industry groups. Think of practices of packaged food industry on misrepresentation of information on packets and ads; ill-treatment of workers by large auto and auto components and garment brands; beverage companies accused of depleting natural resources and increasing non-biodegradable waste (I am yet to receive from Coca Cola answers to simple questions focused at the sustainability of their brand. They want to meet and discuss, but would not respond in an email.).
The cycle of un-sustainable practices will continue to sustain unless the end consumer is thinking of sustainability. It is high time each consumer started looking beyond product quality and price and included the planet in their buying decisions. It sounds difficult. How can you go looking for the environmental commitment of all brands that you patronise?
What you can do is let the brands know that it all matters to you. You can write an email to your butter brand and ask: “Do you know what happens to all the butter paper after I have dumped it in the waste bin?” You can certainly spare a few minutes to go online and find out which brands are making efforts to ensure that their packaging is not littering the planet, or which brands are trying to mitigate the negative impacts of their business. You often appreciate, criticise and review products online. Then why not talk a bit about the manufacturers of those products? Imagine reading this as a product review: “It’s an exceptionally good product, cheapest amongst all in the category, but comes from a company that doesn’t care about the environment and its workers are generally unhappy.”