Lifestyle demographics demand sustainable switch

India has witnessed significant economic growth and made efforts at poverty reduction over the last two decades, which has lifted millions out of poverty. But this has been accompanied by fundamental changes in the country's demographics, particularly the emergence of a completely new" middle class", which is the fastest growing segment of the population, having its own distinctive lifestyles, consumption patterns and social identity. Increased globalization and liberalization of the Indian economy has given consumers access to a greater variety of goods and services and this is breaking down the boundaries in social standards and aspirations in consumption and lifestyle demand.

In terms of absolute consumption and lifestyle impacts, food, transport and housing are seen as the most significant. The increased demand for varieties of food products and trends towards diets richer in meat, dairy products, and processed food has created parallel shifts in resource use including land use patterns, thus resulting in a significant ecological footprint; Housing is reported to use both the most materials and the most energy, contributing to its high footprint. Greater affordability and desire of the middle class to buy their own vehicles, combined with poor urban planning and lack of public transportation infrastructure has resulted in an explosive growth in personal/private ownership of vehicles. This creates a huge increase in the energy requirements for transport such as diesel oil and petrol and an equally huge demand for plastic and metal components (used in the manufacture of vehicles). The cycle completes with an ecological overload, contributing significantly to the increase in carbon emission levels.

A significant characteristic of the lifestyle of an average middle class family (this is also true of the rich and affluent classes as well) is the use of electronic gadgets and appliances in almost every aspect of their daily lives, ranging from computers, mobile phones, home entertainment systems, to home appliances like microwaves, refrigerators and washing machines. All this creates an ecological cost in terms of the quantity and quality of natural resources available as inputs into the production process and consumption of such appliances. The ability of the environment to absorb the waste by-products deposited in the air, water, and soil through such usage is significant as well. The fundamentals of the society's consumption and production will in turn be impacted by resource shortages and environmental degradation.

The question that arises is, can policies be designed to encourage a shift towards and creation of sustainable future? The answer is certainly in the affirmative and here we discuss some of the policy alternatives for sustainable lifestyles.

Fiscal and economic policy initiatives that internalize the environmental costs, motivating individuals to make environment-friendly choices are important. In particular, waste and transport sector can be targeted through these policies such as the levy of weight and volume based user charges for solid waste management imposed on the generators of waste, and economic instruments such as road pricing, car-free zones and congestion charges to discourage traffic congestion. Further, direct subsidies or differentiated indirect tax rates in favour of clean products can be used, It has been recognized that fiscal instruments, which reduce purchasing costs may prove to be more effective in controlling the ecological footprint than tax increases that affect the energy bill over the product lifetime.

Informational policy instruments can also play a significant role in encouraging consumers to make sustainable choices. Businesses in particular, can influence consumer behavior towards more sustainable choices, both through product development and consumer information. Use of sustainability labels enhances clarity regarding the impact of the use of the products on the environment, facilitating people to make the right choice. Energy labeling for electrical appliances is a common example in this regard. This makes it easier for consumers to take the use phase performance of a product into account while making a purchasing decision. Further, businesses could also engage in dialogue with consumers, retailers, marketers, policy makers, academia, researchers and representatives from civil society to define sustainable products and lifestyles and to formulate actionable responses.

Use of large-scale, government-led information and education campaigns that spread awareness about the personal responsibility of each consumer, while also demonstrating the advantages of sustainable consumption, could bring about significant changes. Additionally, evidence-based guides to support national and local governments to create effective public campaigns for change also need to be popularized. Financial incentives could be designed to encourage the development of eco-products, non- petroleum-based products, sustainable buildings and public transport. Businesses could also be asked to structure their corporate social responsibility strategies around the principles of sustainable development.

Resorting to sustainable public procurement on the part of the government and acting as sustainable consumers, could possibly change the perception of other consumers and stakeholders as well into treading the sustainable path. The government needs to make proper choices such as encouraging investments in interconnected mass public transport systems instead of constructing more roadways and highways (which induces consumers to use their own private vehicles).Providing affordable, efficient and differentiated public transport, would reduce traffic related congestion and vehicular emissions. This can also be complemented by market-based regulations such as the levying of higher taxes for larger cars, imposition of road-users tax or congestion charges and high parking charges. Consumers many a time are aware of the unsustainability of their lifestyles, but may not be able to move to the path of sustainability due to the constraints they face in terms of availability, affordability or accessibility of the options. Efforts thus need to be directed towards addressing these constraints and creating an environment for the switch towards sustainable consumption and greener lifestyles.

Tags: energy, energy efficient technologies, fiscal incentives, pollution, Small medium enterprises