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Shailaja Rangarajan, Rimagined (Upclycling venture): 'Conscious Consumers can make a difference'

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Shailaja Rangarajan

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Shailaja Rangarajan, Founder & Director at Rimagined - a venture to promote Upcycling and Sustainable Livelihoods.

Coca-Cola will not ditch single-use plastic bottles because consumers still want them”.  This came from the cola giant recently. The reason, they claim, for the tons of single use plastic bottles they produce are the customers.

This sets the tone for the power that we as consumers wield in changing the way business is done today. Last few decades have been driven by consumerism, GDP driven growth, wealth creation, creation of new markets for new products addressing newer wants that never existed before.

“Address the needs of the consumer”, “Customer first”, “Customer centric approach” were all marketing mantras that were taught and practiced by all businesses. At the same time, organizations have managed to create a market for products that push their top line and bottom line. Products the consumers never knew were needed.

And we as consumers have lapping up the new offerings that come our way and help us lead a life of convenience.  Lifestyle choices have been driven by ‘want based’ consumption instead of the traditional ‘need based consumption’. This has had an impact both on the environment as well as society.

Climate crisis, fast fashion, sweat shops, child labour are all words that have come into focus today and they are all inter-related. All point towards the direction of “over consumption” which has become a way of life for us.

Today worldwide we produce two billion tons of waste per year for a population of 7.6 billion. This is expected to go up by 70% by 2050, according to the Sensoneo Global Waste index 2019.  But one can ask, “isn’t waste recycled and isn’t it good that we are promoting recycling”.

The reality is very different. Only 9% of waste actually gets recycled. Most countries don’t recycle their own waste. It is far more economical to ship their trash to other nations.

 

Let us look at the biggest capitalist nations of the world. The US produces more than 30% of the planet’s total waste. A Guardian report shows that, last year, an equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of American plastic recycling were exported from the US to developing countries that mismanage their own waste.

The people who work in sorting out this “recyclable” waste get paid around $6.5 per day as wages. Since China put a stop to their waste import because of environmental concerns, the waste has been rerouted to some of the poorest countries in the world, one that offer cheap labour and have minimal or no environmental regulations.

What effective waste management are we even talking about in this model? On one end our over consumption and ‘use and throw’ lifestyles are using up the already scarce resources at a rate that is not sustainable. At the other end, by our so called ‘conscious recycling’ attitude, we are creating an industry that is exploiting the needy.

Let us also look at the world of fast fashion that has revolutionized the garment industry.  There is no longer the concept of seasonal wear.  Inexpensive designs hit the retail stores every few weeks and garments are designed to cater to that. Everyone wants to be seen wearing only the latest design. This trend has been killing our environment and created a thriving sweatshop culture. Cheap and trendy clothing has given some very big brands their phenomenal rise as majors global clothing players.

The clothing industry is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Every second, one trash truck's worth of textiles is either burned or sent to a landfill, the U.N. said.  This is the impact of fast fashion on the environment.

Now let us also look at the human angle. We all woke up to the reality of sweat shops after the Rana plaza accident in Bangladesh. At least 1,134 workers in the building died, and more than 2,000 were injured. The question of ‘ethical fashion’ came up as a result.

How can I as a consumer make an ethical choice? How many of us look at the ‘made in’ tag to see where the garment was made, who made it, what the person who made it earned, under what conditions do they work?

We as consumers have the power to demand better. And today thanks to the voices that spoke up after the Rana Plaza accident, many well-known brands disclose information which shows how the product was manufactured.

You might ask ‘as a consumer what is it that I as an individual can do? Isn’t the problem too big for one person to really make an impact?’ That question in itself I would say is an awakening. If I, as a consumer, asks if I can make a difference, I have started my journey on the path of Conscious Consumerism.

Conscious Consumerism is a consumption choice where I make a decision that gives more to the society and the environment than I take away. A balance that is more favorably tilted towards positive contribution.

Let us admit that we don’t live in an ideal world and not every choice we make might be the perfect choice for sustainability. But what if we ask ourselves some basic questions before we make that one purchase. Who am I supporting by making this choice? How am I treading on the environment by making this purchase? Am I indirectly supporting a Rana plaza in the backend that is not visible to me? Am I giving more business to a brand that is built on child labour?

Ethical choice is the word. Ethical in terms of our footprint on Mother Earth, ethical in terms of the lives we are touching directly or indirectly.

Do we really need to buy and consume at the rate we do?

Before we go and buy ANY product because we can afford it, can we pause and ask ‘do I really need it?’. Maybe we can explore alternatives like renting, reuse, repurposing that help us do our bit towards conscious consumption.

“What you do makes a difference. You have to decide what kind of difference you want to make” – Jane Goodall.

Fif Fernandes
12/03/2020 14:36
Excellent article with excellent photos. Thank you. We need many more conscious consumers.