Responsible household consumption
Introduction — Fad based consumption
Today there is no place on earth which is free of micro-plastics, including Mariana Trench, the deepest point on earth in the Pacific Ocean. Micro-plastics were recently found in honey, one of the purest food on earth as it comprises nectar from flowers, showing the omnipresence of plastic. Covid 19 has led to unprecedented use of plastic masks, gloves and shields. Despite world health bodies and governments issuing directives that a double-layered cloth is sufficient to stop the droplets from entering the human body, and that plastic protection is necessary only for health workers, citizens have paid little heed to scientific reason and continued using plastic. Plastics enter the human body directly through packaging microfibers and seafood. There are numerous indirect ways of plastic reaching our bodies, including through nano-plastics in the air. While research is not conclusive, extended exposure and accumulation of plastic in the body can cause serious illnesses, including chronic pulmonary and gastrointestinal diseases 1
The example of plastic demonstrates the impact of a ubiquitous daily item on health of the planet and people. Another instance of inexplicable consumer behaviour is food consumption trends. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (www.fao.org) only nine out of a total of six thousand edible plants, are primarily being produced in the world. Traditional food grains have been replaced by a handful of crops which are being eaten globally, irrespective of their place of origin. Making a choice to eat food produced far away from place of stay, is both bad for the earth and the consumer. In addition, transportation, which is an energy intensive process leads to more complex storage needs, which further increases the carbon footprint of non-local food. Food grown locally is also more suitable to inhabitants of the area, as it is adapted to take care of nutritional and immunity needs of the local population. It is therefore illogical to opt for foods which were not consumed by our ancestors but are sudden entrants into the market and have gained popularity due to concerted marketing efforts.
It is difficult to understand what drives consumer choices. Is it possible that the consumer is making buying decisions based on fads without an understanding of its impact?
Fast fashion and climate change
As children, we looked forward to bi-annual clothes shopping sprees. One for our birthdays and one for a major festival. Clothes remained in ‘Fashion’ for at least a year. Today, fashion changes faster than seasons. It’s hard to explain six or even eight ‘collections’ per year when there aren’t that many seasons. So we have pre-season collections. One truck of discarded clothes is sent to landfills every second. People bought 60 percent more clothes in 2014 than in 2000, but wore, or kept them for half as much time 2. Like rest of our lives, fashion has become ‘fast’, leading to the creation of manufacturing hubs across the world, working hard to meet the ever increasing and changing demand for clothes. Here are some facts about those who make our clothes-
· 80 percent of these clothes are made by women between the age of 18 and 24.
· Most of them make around USD 96 per month, which is five times less than what is needed to lead a life of dignity
· US Department of labour report of 2018, states evidence of forced and child labour in majority of the manufacturing countries like Bangladesh, India, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam etc.
The long-term impact is, predictably, on the Planet. Following data shows the environmental damage that ‘fast fashion’ cause 3.
· Fast fashion industry contributes to 8 to 10 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. Figure below shows the energy consumption pattern, across various stages of procuring, manufacturing and retailing.
· It is one of the largest consumer of water. For eg. One cotton shirt consumes as much water as a person would drink in 2.5 years. 20 percent of industrial water pollution, comes from dyeing and fabric treatment. Do note that most of raw material production and textile manufacturing happens in countries like India and China, which are water starved (figure below).
· It sends close to 92 million tonnes of waste per year, to landfills. You can visualise it by seeing enough waste to fill Empire State Building, every day, as per Ellen MacArthur Foundation (https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/).
There is no question that this industry is one of the reasons why we may not be able to reach our 2030 carbon emission targets. Should we stop buying new clothes then? No.
In 2018, the global apparel industry was worth 35 billion USD, as per Retail Analytics Firm, GlobalData. In 2016, 20 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP and 80 percent of its Export, came from the garment industry, as per the Ethical Trading Organisation. Close to 4 million people, mostly women, rely on this industry for their livelihood, in Bangladesh.
Educating ourselves about the material, source and sustainability certifications when buying apparels, helps the industry become more responsible. You can look for Global Organic Textile Standard — GOTS- which will ensure that the raw material production did not harm the planet, but won’t say anything about worker rights or damage caused during other processes. Better Cotton Initiative — BCI — does the same but for cotton. Cotton is one of the most water intensive crop to grow, so this might be a good one to look out for. bluesign certification looks at worker safety as well as planet health. Large brands have joined hands to promote ‘Responsible Fashion’ but do look for certifications, fabric composition and read up more on each of the brands, as many of them are simply using this to attract the growing segment of conscious shopper.
The simplest way to contribute would be to remain satisfied with the clothes we have, for a longer period of time and not worry too much about changing trends.
Residential Energy Consumption and Climate Change
Global per capita consumption of energy has increased by 45% since 1970, as per Our world in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/energy). India’s energy consumption has increased by more than 50% since 2000 and is continuing to increase year on year. Over the past 3 decades, the share of residential energy consumption in India, has increased from 4 to 25% 4. As incomes increase and electrification reaches deeper into Indian towns and villages, it is only expected that energy consumption in households will increase. Understandably Jharkhand has shown an increase of 21% and Chattisgarh of 12% in household electricity consumption over the past decade. Electrification has improved quality of life across the country, even reducing deaths during extreme hot and cold season. As opposed to an ever increasing demand for fashion and potatoes, the trend of energy consumption appears to be a good one for the developing world. Not entirely.
Energy contributes to 77% of India’s Green House Emissions. While the share of fossil fuels in energy production has been decreasing steadily, an overall shift to lesser consumption is needed to stop the world from heating beyond the 2 degree target. Should the small towns and villages go back to spending scorching summers under scalding tin roofs with no fans? No. Renewable energy can ensure that the advantages of electricity can be made available, without use of fossil fuels. According to Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (https://mnre.gov.in/) India’s Renewable Energy installed capacity has increased by 226% over the past five years and household installation of solar is now more viable than ever before. That is one way to reduce GHG emissions but it is not enough. The unprecedented use of appliances, especially air conditioning, can increase temperatures, leading to warming of the earth, making the use of air conditioning necessary in places which didn’t need them before. It’s a vicious cycle. Air conditioners also use disproportionate amount of energy, upto 100% of energy used by other appliances in a house. Next highest fuel guzzler is Refrigerators. It can be argued that in a hot country like India, these two are necessary and any suggestion on reducing use of either, is futile.
When I was a child, growing up in Delhi, we had desert coolers. They provided cooled air, without increasing our carbon footprint enormously. Later I lived in Bangalore, where we didn’t need a fan, let alone AC, for a large part of the year. Now, not a single Middle to High income housing unit is sold in Bangalore, which doesn’t promised pre-fitted AC. Delhi NCR had implemented ‘one AC in every room philosophy’, a decade back. We are trapped in a world warming up at an unprecedented rate and using a cooling device which is further increasing temperatures 5. While there are ongoing efforts in creating an 80% more efficient AC as the demand for it keeps increasing — due to rising temperatures and income, its not going to replace the present ACs for a long time to come. As Diana Urge Vorsatz, Professor of Climate Change and leading author of the IPCC report says, planting trees, ensuring proper ventilation of old buildings and ensuring new buildings are not “glass and steel cages that can’t withstand a heatwave”, will be wiser and more sustainable solutions.
Better ventilation, blocking the section where the hottest sun hits the house, use of lighter paint and natural building material, can reduce the heating inside a house substantially. According to a Bureau of Energy Efficiency report in 2014, houses can reduce their energy consumption upto 53%, if constructed keeping energy efficiency in mind.
It is not possible to break existing walls for better ventilation or create walls to block out the sun, in our present homes. But we can insist on natural cooling and more efficient architecture designs for future homes. GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment) certification lays down guidelines that builders can use for residential buildings. As responsible consumers, we need to demand such certifications or at least implementation of some energy efficiency measures. Unless we do that, builders will keep throwing in pre-installed ACs rather than a well-designed home, and that will keep heating up the planet and our electricity bills.
Water usage and biodiversity loss
According to the Water Resources Group of World Bank, water demand will exceed supply by 40% by 2030, if present consumption pattern continues. In this paper we have looked at two of the largest water consuming industries — Fashion and Energy. The second highest water consumption is done by the Agriculture sector. Agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use globally and the demand is increasing as per capita income and population increases 6. Changing food habits, with concentration on only a few crops, which may not be locally suited for a particular region, exacerbates the fresh water crisis, as explained in the introduction section. Also, the top food crops which are water thirsty are Wheat, Rice, Corn and Sugarcane. These are also the crops that comprise majority of crop production in the world.
While the crops mentioned above are water-intensive, the use of water by plant crops are still the lowest among all food. Animal products, with beef topping the list, uses approx. 5 times as much water as Eggs, which used 3 times as much as Milk, which in turn, uses 5 times as much as most vegetables 7.
Besides the fact that we are running out of fresh water, the other reason for checking what we consume is that the more we deplete fresh water, the more the chances of contamination. A case in example is Bengal, where ground water was depleted to a very high extent and arsenic concentration in the water increased way above safety standards defined by the WHO. Water contamination forces the need for more stringent purification processes, like the RO (Reverse Osmosis) mechanism, which leads to further water loss. It is wiser to critically question the items we consume and ebb the water usage at that stage rather than fall into this cycle.
How does unsustainable water consumption connect to COVID 19?
Zoonoses and water are connected in two ways directly 8. First, the control of a pandemic like COVID 19 depends on water and sanitation. Use of other means of sanitization is not feasible in all sections of society. Second, loss of water leads to biodiversity loss and here are some ways in which that happens. Water bodies like lakes, marshes and other wetlands contain vibrant ecosystems and depleting these lead to biodiversity loss. Also, depletion of water leads to desertification and loss of forest cover which again leads to biodiversity loss. Another adverse effect of water scarcity and water contamination is the increased use of packaged water. Not only does that release microplastics into the human body but also releases it into soil, water bodies and eventually seas, leading to severe repercussions on aquatic life. Recent studies have shown the possible damage of reproductive processes of marine animals due to microplastic ingestion, which could potentially endanger their species. Another big blow to biodiversity.
While industries need to reduce their water footprint and a large number of norms now require them to submit water usage reports, a lot is in the hands of the consumer. Other than the Energy and Fashion tips in the previous sections, we can be mindful of our domestic water usage to begin with. Washing and bathing comprises more than 70% of our household water consumption but reducing either is not a solution 9. But bucket baths and natural detergents, like soap nuts, for washing, can reduce our water footprint substantially. Buying locally grown and seasonal food is another way to encourage water friendly agricultural practices. A key step in conserving water bodies is the reduction in use of plastic.
Why do we over-consume?
GDP per capita has grown from USD 453 in 1960 to USD 11,435, in 2019, as per World Bank (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD). Even after adjustments for inflation etc, it is a huge increase in money available for spending. Understandably per capita consumption of most goods, have increased multi-fold. If the physical body has remained unchanged, how has our need for food and clothes doubled over the past decade? Why are we constantly buying new things, things which we were able to function satisfactorily before? Banerjee and Duflo talk about ‘keeping up appearances’ in their book, Good economics for hard times 10. They talk about how people would pay more for a superficial change in a product, just to appear a certain way, in front of others. Their sample showed a decrease in this behaviour when the participants were given something purposeful to do. Combining this with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, the more our basic needs of food and security get met with, the more we will be able to focus on a higher purpose and meaning 11. It can be inferred that as higher percentage of the population starts moving up the income chain, they will make responsible purchasing decisions, based on an understanding of impact on planet and people.
Zoonotic diseases are caused by transmission of pathogens from animals to humans. Biodiversity loss leads to human-animal contact getting intensified and the natural dilution effect of viruses getting reduced. A warming planet leads to biodiversity loss and also allows pathogens to move to newer regions that were cold previously. While the onus of ensuring biodiversity conservation, lies with governments and large corporates, it is the duty of individual consumers to demand goods and services, which take care of the planet. It is critical to question the source, ingredients, impact of products we use. It is perhaps even more critical to question the need of it at all. The lockdown has shown the importance of frugality. And as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs proves, maybe it is time to look at higher purposes, which keep the earth and us, happy.