Sustainable Consumption in the Context of India

Sustainable Consumption in the Context of India

Harold Wilhite

Consumption in India has been growing rapidly for three decades, putting enormous pressure on local environments as well as becoming one of the major contributors to global greenhouse emissions.  India’s growing middle class increasingly consumes a broad range of commodities that range from cosmetic products to cars and household appliances. While lots of attention has been given to the rapid growth in India’s economy after its opening to global capitalism and trade in the 1990s, a full understanding of changing consumption is only accessible from a perspective that is grounded in everyday lives. In this brief article I illustrate how consumption is changing in the meeting of globalizing consumption with Indian cultural practices, drawing on three examples which have problematic environmental consequences: automobility, air conditioning and refrigeration.

The stage was set for increases in consumption with the major transformation of India’s political economy in the period from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, during which India’s longstanding policy of isolation from globalizing capitalism was abandoned (Kennedy 2014). The ‘opening of India’ broke with the post-Independence legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Jahawal Nerhu, who were deeply skeptical of Western consumerism as a path to Indian human and economic development. Gandhi’s political and personal philosophy of thrift and simplicity influenced both Indian economic policy and the Indian middle classes, who regarded frugality as a positive social trait. In 1991, the Indian government, worried about a stagnating economy and the spiraling costs of social programs, took its first loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which brought with it conditions that India deconstruct its planned economy and downsize government. Luxury taxes were eliminated on many products – including household energy appliances – and there was a surge in the availability of a vast range of new commodities and products, including household appliances and cars. Trade restrictions were relaxed and from the mid-1980s India began to take on board neo-liberal development principles popular in the post-Reagan and Thatcher political economies in the USA and UK.

Transnational corporations that had earlier been held at bay were invited to market their products and to establish joint agreements with Indian companies for product development in a number of commodities, including cars. Several joint ventures were created between Indian and foreign car makers, and both Indian-produced cars and foreign imports began to flood Indian markets. Car consumption took off in the middle classes, where it quickly took on social significance. The type and model of car owned became associated with social identity, with expensive SUVs at the top of the social hierarchy and the traditional Indian Maruti sedan at the bottom (Nielsen and Wilhite 2015). Car ownership grew at a phenomenal rate over the decade of the 1990s, but the price of the standard sedan was still out of the reach of many of India’s lower middle class. In 2008, the Indian manufacturer Tata Motors decided to produce a plain, simple and inexpensive car, the Nano. It was promoted as an Indian ‘people’s car’, and priced at only 100,000 Indian Rupees (INR) – or less than USD 2,500. Six years after the launch, the Tata Nano had barely made an impact on the Indian car market, and is widely regarded as a failure. The lack of interest in the car revealed the importance of the car as social signifier – people were worried about the message that ownership of a ‘people’s car’ Nano would convey. The new Indian consumer is reluctant to buy a plain car that signals thrift. Tata has understood this and recently began producing more expensive Nano models with flashier designs and bigger engines.

The consumption of all in-home appliances has increased rapidly in India over the past 20 years. The motives for acquiring them are quite different from those associated with the car. Their main attraction is the capacity for electric appliances to relieve pressures on time-stressed married women (Wilhite 2014). Husbands in India do not participate in housework. The accessibility of domestic help is declining as is the practice of members of the extended family sharing a house, so that chores that were previously shared by the women of the joint household now fall on the shoulders of individual women.  Increasing educational opportunities and a more openness to women working outside the home are behind a steady increase in the numbers of women with full time jobs, yet women continue to have full responsibility for housework. Working wives must compress all household chores into early mornings and late evenings. Appliances such as food mixers, washing machines, refrigerators and microwave ovens reduce time used for shopping, food preparation and washing clothes by hand.  The importance of these time saving appliances is underlined by the fact that they are becoming regular aspects of dowry. In most of India and across all social classes, the families of brides use dowry to secure husbands for their daughters. Dowry has traditionally been in the form of gold jewelry and money, but household appliances are becoming common, partly due to their symbolizing the bride’s family as ‘modern’, but also partly because they will relieve work for the bride in their new household. An interesting facet of this is that dowry is becoming a hybrid form for consumption that combines the modern and the traditional (Wilhite 2008).

As these appliances are taken into use, they not only reduce time and work, but influence practices in sometimes unexpected ways. The refrigerator is a particularly powerful change agent, affecting both dietary and food shopping practices. Many Indians were indifferent to the refrigerator when it was introduced into India in the 1960s, partly because the existence of an abundance of local markets made prolonged storage of food products unnecessary. Another important factor was the pervasive food ideology in India that associates the chilling and storing of food with bad health. Food should be “alive” in order to give life to the eater. However, the refrigerator’s time-saving potential invites the purchase and storage of ready-made frozen and convenience foods, which younger women are increasingly utilizing to alleviate time pressure and, in the process, are setting aside traditional food ideologies and practices. Shopping patterns are changing from frequent trips to local markets to shopping in bulk at larger supermarkets, which are in turn creating refrigerated and frozen spaces to accommodate convenience and frozen foods. India, China and other rapidly developing countries are locking into refrigerated food practices that resemble those in Europe and North America. These are energy intensive and, once in place, difficult to change.

Another type of refrigeration, air conditioning, is also growing rapidly in India with major energy and environmental impact. The high price of air conditioners made them prohibitive for most middle class Indian families until the 1990s. There were only a few Indian air conditioning manufactures prior to the economic liberalization in 1991 and fewer than three percent of Indian homes had an air conditioner. Prices for air conditioners fell rapidly in the 1990s, when the excise tax was eliminated and import restrictions on air conditioners relaxed. In 2001, air conditioners were removed from the luxury goods category and the 18.75 percent luxury tax dropped. There have also been changes in the ways that houses are designed and built that favour air conditioning. Until the 1980s, houses were built to be cooled using natural ventilation. Walls were constructed of wood, plaster (laterite) and clay. Roofs were made of thatch or clay tiles, which allow air-flow and heat exhaust. Since the 1990s, concrete has been the construction material of choice for middle class and elite housing. Concrete is cheap and durable, but concrete structures do not permit natural ventilation. This makes concrete houses ideal for air conditioners, but impossible to cool without them during the long warm season. By 2000 there were more than 17 major air conditioning brands on the Indian market, most of them foreign (some with licensed production in India) offering about 60 different air conditioning models (Wilhite 2008). Today about 20% of Indian homes are air conditioned and air-conditioning sales are growing at 20 percent per year. Air conditioning is making huge demands on power generation in major urban areas. In Mumbai, in 2014, air conditioning was responsible for 40 percent of the electricity demand. It is estimated that 60% of Indian houses will be air conditioned by 2030. This will take India into the same high energy and high carbon comfort regime already in place in the USA, Australia and Japan, and making its way into China (MacNeill and Wilhite 2015).

These examples illustrate some of the dynamics behind changing consumption in India. Consumption has changed from a negative to positive social signifier. A changing political economy is favouring increasing consumption in economic development and promoting products that are marketed to save time and housework. This is behind a rapid increase in energy production, both from petroleum products and coal, which is found in abundance in India. This contributes to local pollution, to greenhouse emissions and to extractive pressures on Indian forested areas where most of the coal is deposited. India’s consumption per capita and ecological footprint is still far below those of the USA and Europe, but its large and growing population make consumption a huge challenge for India’s domestic environment as well as for global efforts to combat climate change.


Further Reading
Kennedy, Loraine. 2014. The Politics of Restructuring in India_ Economic Governance and State Spatial Rescaling. London: Routledge.
McNeill, D. and H. Wilhite. 2015. Making sense of sustainable development in a changing world. In Hansen, A. And U. Wethal (Eds), Emerging Economies and Challenges to Sustainability. London: Routledge.Neilsen, K. B. and H. Wilhite. 2015. The Rise and Fall of the ‘People’s Car’: Consumer Aspirations, Status and Mobile Symbolism in New India.Contemporary South Asia.
Wilhite, H. 2008. Consumption and the Transformation of Everyday Life: A View from South India. Basingstroke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wilhite, H. 2014. Changing consumption and the negotiation of gender roles in India. In K. B.Nielsen and Anne Waldrop (Eds), Women, Gender and Everyday Social Transformation in India. New Delhi: Anthem Press.


Harold Wilhite is a Professor of Social Anthropology and Research Director at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and Environment. He has published widely on the theories, practices and policies of sustainable consumption, energy savings and the expansion of  transnational capitalism, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in several parts of the world, including Central America, USA, Norway, Japan and India. His is the author of Consumption and the Transformation of Everyday Life: A View from South India (Palgrave Macmillan 2008) and Political Economy of Low Carbon Transformation: Breaking the Habits of Capitalism (Routledge, forthcoming in April 2016).