Addressing the Glasgow Climate Change Summit (COP26) last year, drawing attention to an often overlooked issue, Prime Minister Modi said: “Today the world accepts that the mode of life plays an important role in climate change”. Further applying, he came up with “LIFE…L, I, F, E, which stands for Lifestyle For Environment.” It is corroborated by Hot or Cool Institute, a Germany-based nonprofit think tank, in its “1.5 Degree Lifestyles Report,” which finds that all G20 countries analyzed exceed the footprint. lifestyle carbon for 2050, requiring rapid and sweeping reductions. As the conventional wisdom in the country has it, it is the lifestyles of rich, developed countries that are unsustainable. And, in a way, that’s largely true too. But for a developing country like India, there is an urgent need for soul-searching in this regard. Does the root of all the elements of our unsustainable way of life lie in the Western way of life or is it something very unique to our own economy, our own preferences which are dictated more by our growing obsession with personal comfort than anything else?
I vividly remember that in my childhood days shopping for groceries – other than vegetables and milk for lack of proper storage – was a monthly affair. In fact, in the not too distant past, most households used to keep some sort of list in which items were added as they came to mind. Once the list was long enough, weekly or monthly shopping trips were set up. Even then, care was taken to plan these expeditions to optimize the route. Unnecessary round trips were frowned upon.
And then came e-commerce with the incredible convenience of ordering and delivering a multitude of items without having to leave your home. The advent of Flipkart and Amazon was to change the shopping styles of us Indians beyond recognition and how! But that was just the beginning and pandemic necessities meant that these facilities needed to be made even more convenient, if at all possible. But it also has a lot to do with customer acquisition, a key metric for determining the valuation of e-commerce startups. And so, today we see fierce competition between these players over who can deliver the goods faster: if one entity promises 30-minute delivery, the others will step in with deliveries in 10 minutes or less. So much so that consumers are lulled into a lifestyle where nothing has to be planned. Even if only a few items are needed out of the blue, the same are delivered on the spot, at very minimal delivery (or convenience) charges. Add to that food delivery aggregators. But as the saying goes, we all live in glass houses in this regard. But as I said earlier, it’s very particular to our country. No advanced country offers such comfort to its inhabitants.
But if you take a closer look, is it sustainable in the long term? Consider just two of its salient features, namely packaging and vehicle travel for delivery. Despite claims of sustainable packaging, one can regularly notice unnecessary/oversized boxes, plastic cutlery and filler material sewn all around. Even if we take the recyclability of all this packaging at face value, no one can deny that recycling processes also require resources, and energy. There was no need for such elaborate packaging for most goods in the first place when shopping was done conventionally, in person. And then there is the delivery of these goods by a variety of carriers; ranging from two-wheelers to three-wheelers and four-wheelers. The amount of fuel consumed just for e-commerce delivery is staggering. An oft-repeated argument there is that these fleets are being converted into e-mobility fleets. But there are two crucial factors to consider. First, unnecessary trips to occasionally deliver small shipments are always wasteful from an environmental sustainability perspective. Second, even electric vehicles need energy to operate. And until the electricity in the country is generated mostly by renewables, the electricity consumed by these vehicles is largely impure, not to mention the ultimate nightmare of battery waste. Even in the most optimistic scenario where, at a later date, end-of-life batteries would be reused, there would still be material and environmental penalties that could only have been avoided if we behaved more responsibly in the first place. . It would be interesting to understand that when environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) has become a buzzword, especially for new-age companies; are these criteria also rigorously applied to the long-term impacts of their business models? or on decisions that others are required to make. It would indeed be ironic if the results of major cleantech advances were undermined by narrowly targeted technology-driven business innovations. However, the fact remains that the sustainability of our world very much depends on our actions and the choices we make today, as individuals. It’s high time to realize that often conveniences have a cost, even if they are offered at a reduced price. And if the balance tips towards unsustainability in the broad sense; Can we afford to continue to prioritize convenience over everything else?
[The author is Former Senior Director, Social Transformation & Knowledge Management, The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI)]