Home >Opinion >When basics like clean water and air become good business

The top two beverage brands in India by volume are of bottled water. This may not come as a surprise to many of you, given the rise of health consciousness in the country. But then let’s rethink this—bottled water is not just an alternative to sweetened beverages like cola; it is an alternative to safe tap water.

Last year, when my water filter got spoilt, I switched to packaged bottled water as an alternative in the interim period. Packaged bottled water is one of the few industries that has managed to grow exponentially over the last five years in both volume and value, even as most other beverage segments recorded anaemic growth, according to data from research firm Euromonitor.

In homes with access to tap water, water purifiers are a necessity. In fact, some corporate builders now offer flats with pre-installed water purifiers. The scenario for the impoverished communities—living on around $4.31 or Rs280 a day—is more grim. They are forced to collect dirty water from open ponds and rivers or spend most of what they earn buying water from tankers, says a 2017 report by WaterAid, a water and sanitation non-profit headquartered in London.

According to WaterAid, close to 5% of India’s 1.25 billion people, or nearly 63 million people, have no access to safe water. This is the highest number of people in the world without access to clean water.

It’s not only access to clean water, but even clean air that is turning into an added expenditure. Air purifiers is another segment that saw stellar growth in the last couple of years, according to Euromonitor. This even as the larger consumer durables sector saw muted growth. Events like schools shutting down due to high levels of toxic smog in the national capital in November further drove home the point (or sale), at least in metropolitan cities. The high level of pollution has given a boost to sales of anti-pollution masks, nose air purifier clips, and even air quality consultants who visit your homes and tell you what the right machine is for each room.

The lack of clean water and air has wider implications—on life span, quality of life, medical expenses, school attendance, and worker productivity. Close to 140,000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases each year, after using dirty water, WaterAid says. Whereas deaths attributed to ultra-fine PM2.5 pollutants have risen over the past decade and are estimated at 1,640,113 annually in India. The implications are indeed grave.

This, then, is an even larger market opportunity. So we have companies like consumer packaged goods maker Hindustan Unilever Ltd, which has associated some of its brands with hygiene and environmental issues. As air purifiers too will soon become a necessity, its Anglo-Dutch parent Unilever Plc acquired Swedish air purifier maker Blueair in 2016. The company already has a water purifier brand, Pureit. Moreover, since 2015, it has been running a multi-brand campaign with its brands like Lifebuoy, Domex and Pureit that stress on habits like washing hands, using a toilet for defecation and adopting safe drinking water practices.

Consumer products are just one aspect. They are like putting a Band Aid when what we actually need is to look at solutions that allow our natural ecosystems to survive even as we industrialize and urbanize. For this to happen, businesses need to adopt sustainable practices—design products that are easy to repair, using materials that last longer and which cause the least impact to the environment.

The government too needs to step up in implementing policy measures. The country’s inability to manage its environment, health and ecosystem vitality has landed it a place in the bottom five on the Environmental Performance Index 2018, says a biennial report by Yale and Columbia Universities along with the World Economic Forum. India is at the bottom of the list in the environmental health category, and it ranks 178 out of 180 in air quality. Its overall low ranking—177 among 180 countries—was linked to poor performance in environment health policy and deaths due to air pollution.

Perhaps it’s time to do things differently. May be as consumers we can lead the change this time—ask the tough questions, walk the talk and put our money where our mouth is.

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

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