If we look back two to three decades ago, single-use plastic was not as rampant as it is today. While people largely carried shopping bags from home, products like milk and soft drinks were packaged in reusable glass bottles; hygiene and sanitary products were reused too. The Indian plastics industry started burgeoning in the year 1957. However, plastic consumption as a part of our lifestyles soared during the late 80s. If we were to term these 30 years as the ‘plastic era’, one would observe a gradual shift in consumer preferences for single-use plastic items towards the end of this decade.
With the rising number of global organizations and initiatives taken towards spreading awareness and curbing plastic pollution, we are soon to witness an era of planet-friendly consumerism in the retail sector. The Global Sustainability study conducted by global strategy and pricing consultancy, Simon-Kucher & Partners reveals, more than a third of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, as demand grows for environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Also with a rise in purchasing power parity, the modern-day urban consumer is transitioning from pocket-friendly or affordable to eco-friendly and sustainable. At least 60 percent of consumers in India are willing to pay a premium for planet-friendly products, while 52 percent of urban Indians expect to increase spending on planet-friendly brands in the next 3 years, according to a new survey by consulting firm Bain & Company.
Global organizations and initiatives are also key in bringing about a gradual shift in consumer demand for products that serve the purpose of sustainable living.
Even though there is growing awareness amongst the urban population, rural villages and tier II and III cities are rooted in price-conscious buying. While single-use products are widely available at highly affordable prices, there is the scarce availability of consciously manufactured products and they are generally priced at a premium.
‘Use and throw’ products are more convenient to use and discard than sustainable products, which generally need washing and maintenance. Throwing away plastic bottles, used plastic toothbrushes and buds is a common practice, resulting in landfills and also the level of awareness around eco-friendly practices like segregation of waste into dry and wet waste is low.
There is also a conflict of opinion on the concept of sustainability. Paper products marketed as alternatives to plastic products are still harming the environment, as they involve cutting down trees and forest reserves. Most consumers even face trouble identifying sustainable products and are unclear about their credibility of those. Very few branded sustainable consumer products are available and hence, they are forced to choose single-use products off the shelf.
All of the above factors act as deterrents to sustainable buying and conscious choices to be made by an ecologically aware consumer.
The Underlying Barriers to Change
India’s recycling rates are low viz-a-viz the volumes of waste we generate. Plastic recycling is done at a very small scale and the number of recyclers is not very well documented. Waste disposal is a growing concern as waste is seen as a challenge and not as a resource. The concept of segregation of waste is not implemented at the household level. Eventually, these factors impact the planet-conscious buying decisions of consumers, as there is a sense of all efforts going in vain.
The Silver Lining
Positively, larger chunks of educated and aware citizens are connecting through communities on social media platforms with co-activists and believers, who have made sustainability a way of living. They consciously choose products only with environmental benefits, live a plastic-free life, and do not buy products that pose a danger to wildlife. These buyers pay attention to labels and packaging and practice the concept of green homes.
How Brands are Shifting Focus to Manufacturing and Marketing Sustainable Products?
The growing level of awareness and acceptance have created huge opportunities for companies to bring to the fore sustainable solutions for consumers. Upcycled, ethically-made, reusable products are the way forward for brands wanting to influence the ’conscious’ consumer. Brands are bringing together zero-waste design, small-scale production, and time-tested Indian traditions and centuries-old practices of recycling and up-cycling to cater to consumers.
These consumers have made conscious changes in their products of day-to-day consumption, right from replacing plastic toothbrushes, combs, earbuds, shaving brushes, bottles, scrubs, and containers with products made out of natural raw materials like bamboo and wood. Hygiene and sanitation products that are planet-friendly and reusable are also catching acceptance widely.
The fashion industry is focused on sourcing sustainable raw materials. Concepts like ‘eco-wool’ (yarn made out of recycled plastic bottles) are adopted by signature fashion brands.
From consumer products to the fashion and automobile industry, companies are designing planet-friendly solutions and also adopting conscious practices in the process.
Brands offering such solutions are also increasingly creating awareness campaigns on social and mass media platforms for the acceptance of their products and promoting sustainability at large. Influencers are promoting eco-friendly practices as a trend and the digital era is playing a key role in influencing young minds. Companies studying consumer trends are well aware of the fact that consumers share an emotional connection with products or organizations that demonstrate eco-friendly qualities.
The challenge lies for the single-use plastic industry and organizations involved in manufacturing single-use plastic-based products and other products causing serious harm to the environment. It is imperative for them to upgrade to sustainable solutions as this gradual shift in consumer behavior may catch momentum with tighter regulations and initiatives by the government and also environmental changes. On the other hand, there is a need for strong government support for these industries to be able to adapt to change and set up infrastructure for sustainable alternative products and solutions.
Rightly said that change is inevitable, there is a need for collective participation from government bodies, businesses, and consumers altogether, to create avenues for a sea change towards environment-friendly behaviors and practices to attain the larger goal of saving the environment.