Global warming is no longer a matter of academic discourse solely. Persistent efforts of determined and vocal activists have finally brought the debate to the surface of global polity and, yes, dining-table conversations as well. Natural calamities are now being noticed by all and the Covid pandemic has made us wonder if life as we know it may actually be at peril due to our own actions. 

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

Going by reports in popular media, a large part of the efforts of the scientific community to solve various climate-change issues is directed at breakthroughs in alternative technologies. Very little is reported on the possibility that such inventions may deflect the impending climate-change crisis to another form of existential danger of equal or perhaps even more dire consequence than we are able to 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 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 will 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 may have missed getting at the core underlying reason for the current crisis – which is that humans as a species have been consuming way more than can be justified as fulfilling of rational needs, especially since the Industrial Revolution. At the heart of the evolving crisis is a vicious cycle of quest for rapid economic growth and conspicuous consumption, leading to unnecessary waste of precious resources. 

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. 

Is technology in our daily lives leading to a potentially catastrophic accumulation of electronic waste, particularly 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 at a great risk of piling up toxic waste. In our quest for business growth, new models of gadgets—sometimes with only ‘cosmetic’ modifications—are now launched at unprecedented frequency and these are lapped up rapidly, thanks largely to our propensity for conspicuous consumption. The entire value chain, starting from the brands to the retailer, are driving their business growth by fueling the aspirations of consumers for a better life, though not all of these are really 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 usage of recycled raw materials, reducing carbon footprint, and so on.    Similarly, electronics retailers have started taking steps toward sustainability by promoting energy-efficient gadgets, arranging exchange of old products, and rewarding safe disposal of e-waste. 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.

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

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

And finally, 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 safely? 

Avijit Mitra is MD and CEO, Croma, Infiniti Retail