Understanding Environmental impacts and Drivers of Consumption in India

Understanding Environmental impacts and Drivers of Consumption in India

31.03.2021, Wednesday
Zoom meeting - https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87195148888?pwd=OVFQa2ZVanJ5VzJ5ajF0VUxGVTFxZz09

Soumyajit Bhar, Ph.D. Scholar, ATREE

Date & Time: March 31, 2021 at 02:30 pm

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The role of consumerism or resource-intensive luxury consumption practices in potentially causing environmental degradation necessitates thorough investigations of its drivers and impacts. Much of the current ‘sustainable consumption’ literature has focused on consumption patterns in the global North. My dissertation seeks to understand the drivers of what I call Conspicuous/Luxury (C/L) consumption in India and connect this consumption to not only its global impact in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also its local and regional scale environmental impacts.

The first chapter presents estimates of three footprints: per capita blue water consumption, PM2.5 emission, and GHG emissions. These estimates were derived from a multi-regional input-output (EXIOBASE) table and consumption data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) of households. Upon disaggregating the footprints by consumption type (food, non-food, and C/L), it is found that C/L consumption seems to contribute significantly to the sudden rise in the total environmental footprint of the top decile in the case of both PM2.5 emissions and GHG emissions, but not in the case of water.

While income enables C/L consumption, it does not ‘drive’ it. So what are the factors that might explain consumption behavior? I first carried out a multivariate statistical analysis of the IHDS dataset to look at the correlates of C/L consumption. Peer networks and mass media exposure are positively correlated with C/L consumption of well-to-do households, whereas education appears to moderate it in some cases. These results highlight the importance of socio-psychological factors in shaping consumption decisions beyond the expected enabling role of income.

A more in-depth analysis of the socio-psychology of high-end consumers was carried out through a phenomenological study conducted using qualitative data from 18 in-depth interviews across three Indian cities. The analysis indicates that the ability to reflect on one’s consumption choices is paramount for the literature on sustainable consumption to consider. It also indicates the factors such as the exposure to reality on the ground or a distancing from consumption items or the impact social networking that aid and hinder this ability to foster in an individual.

While the average consumption levels and environmental footprints of Indian citizens remain very low compared to those in developed nations, a significant fraction of the large Indian population consumes at far higher levels, and this fraction is increasing rapidly. This dissertation offers a preliminary understanding of how C/L by the top income deciles is already contributing a significant amount of both global and local environmental impacts in general, but also the variability by types of impacts. It highlights the importance of understanding socio-psychological drivers and in particular, of promoting alternative conceptions of good life existing in India to address the ongoing phenomenon of rising consumption, if we as a country are to avoid repeating the mistakes made by the global North.