Responsible Consumption: An Electronics Retailer’s Dilemma

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Avijit Mitra

Global warming is no longer a mere matter of academic discourse. Persistent efforts of passionate global activists have finally brought the debate to the surface of global polity and dining table conversation. Natural calamities are now being noticed by all, and the COVID pandemic has made us believe, however fleetingly, that life as we know it may be in peril due to our actions. The subject can no longer be ignored. 

By all reports in popular media, a large part of the efforts of the scientific community to solve the climate change issue is directed at breakthroughs in alternative technologies. Very few discussions are reported on the possibility that such inventions may deflect the impending climate change crisis to another form of the existential danger of equal or perhaps even more dire consequence than we can foresee today.

As we celebrate World Environment Day, it is worth pondering over some of the hidden undertones of the issue at hand that are not often evident in the deluge of discourses on climate change. Are there important aspects of the problem that are being missed while seeking the solutions? 

By all reports in popular media, a large part of the efforts of the scientific community to solve the climate change issue is directed at breakthroughs in alternative technologies. Very few discussions are reported on the possibility that such inventions may deflect the impending climate change crisis to another form of the existential danger of equal or perhaps even more dire consequence than we can foresee today. One of the key learnings of the post-Industrial Revolution era is that the impact of any technology on the future must be anticipated and resolved before adopting it at scale. In the current search for alternative technologies, are we adequately asking the hard questions about the future impact of such technologies? What, for instance, would be the impact of a huge stockpile of solar cells on the Earth in the next century? How would we dispose of them once they ‘die’?  

A larger matter that does not seem to be getting adequate consideration is that even as the scientific community grapples with the hunt for alternative technologies, we are not cognizant that the core underlying reason for the current crisis is that humans as a species have been consuming much more than their rational need since the Industrial Revolution. At the heart of the evolving crisis is a vicious cycle of the quest for rapid economic growth and conspicuous consumption, leading to the unnecessary waste of precious resources that the Earth has. 

The 21st century seems to have accelerated this trend further with the discovery of digital technologies that have enabled dreams that were, till recently, in the realm of sci-fi films. Growing prosperity, easy finance and rising aspirations have stretched our propensity to consume beyond rational levels, accelerating a vicious growth-consumption-waste cycle of gadgets.        

While these are all meaningful steps toward a vision of sustainable growth, not many efforts are reported about enterprises attempting to build a sustainable business model that resolves the dichotomy of business growth versus irrational consumption. Unless this dilemma is resolved, the efforts toward a greener planet may well remain elusive in the race for growth and market share. 

Is technology in our daily lives leading to a potentially catastrophic accumulation of electronic waste with the proliferation of electronic processing capacity and gadgets? A constant influx of innovations in disruptive technologies has improved the quality of our lives but is at greater risk of piling up toxic waste. In our quest for business growth, new models of gadgets, sometimes with only ‘cosmetic’ modifications, are launched at an unprecedented frequency and they are lapped up by our propensity for conspicuous consumption. The entire value chain, starting from the brands to the retailer, is driving their business growth by fuelling the aspirations of consumers for a better life, though not all of these are impacting our lives meaningfully. Is it time to slow down so our children can live better?    

Several leading brands of electronic gadgets have started focusing sharply on sustainable practices such as the usage of recycled raw materials, reducing carbon footprint, and so on. Similarly, electronic retailers have started taking steps toward sustainability by promoting energy-efficient gadgets, arranging the exchange of old products and rewarding safe disposal of eWaste. Many have attempted to reduce the usage of plastics in their packaging and shopping bags. Most have converted their stores to energy-efficient air-conditioning and LED lights, while a move toward electric vehicles for transportation of goods has also started.

While these are all meaningful steps toward a vision of sustainable growth, not many efforts are reported about enterprises attempting to build a sustainable business model that resolves the dichotomy of business growth versus irrational consumption. Unless this dilemma is resolved, the efforts toward a greener planet may well remain elusive in the race for growth and market share. 

Fortunately, the younger generation is much more conscious about preserving the environment and the idea of ‘responsible consumption’ is garnering greater attention. Appreciation of the impact of over-consumption on the environment must get due attention as an embedded element of daily life and culture. Can any retailer crack open the growth versus consumption dichotomy and lead the way to a sustainable business model? 

And finally, as part of this World Environment Day, can we, as individuals and families, pledge to take every small step we can think of in our daily lives to consume mindfully, use carefully and dispose of safely? 

Avijit Mitra is the MD and CEO of Croma, Infiniti Retail.