Home / Opinion / Columns /  When buying shapes the narrative

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.

But while we consume more, the nature of consumption is also changing. Consumption is often taken to mean the purchase 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.

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.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.

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.

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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