Why are rich Indians unable to get rid of hazardous plastic?

Sustainability needs to be realistic for consumers to sustain.
A swamp.
A swamp.
Photo: Danish Siddiqui (Reuters)
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Public outreach campaigns educate consumers with compelling data and storytelling about carbon footprints, natural resource scarcity, and climate change. Data appeals to our intellect and stories appeal to our emotions. Both are necessary for inspiring change, but if they were sufficient, most urban Indians would have quit plastic and limited water use by now. Awareness is just the first barrier, and others are beyond it; unfortunately, most outreach interventions end here.

Urban and affluent populations consume a disproportionate chunk of natural resources and need to be participants in positive change; but most funded conservation programmes focus on marginalised populations near biodiversity hotspots.

Till the urban consumer has continued access to the air they breathe, water runs when they turn on their taps, soil that grows their food is viable, and energy to power their lifestyles is a switchboard away, they won’t experience the gravity of environmental threats before them. But the problem isn’t limited to Indians with means turning a blind eye to distant environmental threats. There are multiple pieces to the puzzle.

A shopping mall in India. Urban Indian consumers can’t feel the gravity of environmental threats since they have continued access to amenities such as clean water or electricity, writes the author of this commentary.
A shopping mall in India. Urban Indian consumers can’t feel the gravity of environmental threats since they have continued access to amenities such as clean water or electricity, writes the author of this commentary.
Photo: Vis M/Wikimedia Commons

Motivation is both individual and social and is fuelled by rewards. The cost of any lifestyle change is often direct and personal to the consumer, but the benefit is indirect and collective (to the planet), making it hard for the consumer to experience its reward.

What compels a conservationist to act responsibly may not compel the public. Campaigners need to step out of their shoes and look at issues from the narrow lens of their audiences. For instance, if a bus/ train doubles the time for commute, and cycling quadruples one’s effort, one might use an autorickshaw frequently even if one is aware it impacts their footprint. Inspiration is not sufficient when the means to act on it is a constant inconvenience to a consumer.

We need to enable change, not just advocate it

In addition to campaigning for change, we need to create avenues for audiences to adopt new behaviours, and mechanisms to support it long-term. We need markets and infrastructure set up to make sustainable lifestyles a ground reality, just as we need scientific research, policy changes, law enforcement, and environmental protection. Systems are fundamental for public awareness campaigns to drive real-world outcomes. We apply systems thinking in designing field, policy, and advocacy interventions, but communications and outreach are often isolated endeavours which fall back on wishful thinking instead.

The book, Switch, explains “People tend to ignore situational forces that shape behaviour. We attribute behaviour to the way people are, rather than the situation they’re in.” A study at Stanford tested 3 important criteria for a change in behaviour – direction, motivation, and shaping the path for progress.

In every outreach campaign, consider if consumers have all they need to implement the change. Is sustaining eco-friendly behaviour complex or convenient for them?

Barriers to change

The challenges that prevent change include information barriers or lack of clarity and structural and motivational barriers such as a certain attitude, opportunity and ability.

Information is not only to educate people about environmental issues, but also to guide them on how they can make a difference every step of the way.

For instance, how can a consumer choose from plastic, metal, glass, wood, paper, or fabric, when no packaging material comes without some cost to the environment? Armed with eco-friendly alternatives, and tools to navigate decisions, consumers could minimise their footprint.

Shifting to an eco-friendly lifestyle often means making the more inconvenient, time-intensive, cost and/ or effort-intensive choice repeatedly. “Change is hard because people wear themselves out and can’t continually inhibit impulses or persist in the face of frustrations,” says Switch. Sustainability needs to be realistic for consumers to sustain.

Imagine you need a household cleaner and a retailer offers you 3 package-free options – a soap, a powder, or a liquid to take home in your container. Even though they’re unattractive, you have to buy one. Now imagine an alternative scenario where you watch a fascinating nature documentary on waste ending up in oceans. The fact that oceans generate 90% of our oxygen inspires you to reduce waste. You later approach your local store for a household cleaner and find only plastic or cardboard packaged options. You suspect cutting trees for paper is worse, so you choose plastic, even though you’re aware it’ll end up as waste. In each scenario, opportunity and ability outdid your awareness or attitude. Ill-equipped markets are a ground reality preventing awareness campaigns from being effective.

Discarded plastic bottles on a beach in India. Shifting to eco-friendly lifestyle means making the more inconvenient, time-intensive, cost and/or effort-intensive choice repeatedly.
Discarded plastic bottles on a beach in India. Shifting to eco-friendly lifestyle means making the more inconvenient, time-intensive, cost and/or effort-intensive choice repeatedly.
Photo: Hajj0 ms/Wikimedia Commons

Markets as enablers of positive change

Before running campaigns, marketers ensure they’ve shaped the path for change. McDonald’s will set up its restaurant network before it advertises on digital media. Public health campaigns will organise vaccination booths before TV announcements ask people to go get vaccinated. The reason is, if the service is inaccessible when a consumer is called to act, then the motivation created by the campaign is wasted because it can’t materialise. Even environmental campaigns need to facilitate lifestyle change upfront, instead of sounding climate alarms and hoping consumers find their own solutions. Net-zero campaigns trying to reverse our aspirations to minimalism need to supply the means to act, and the rewards; just as marketers did to drive consumerism. If the government doesn’t ban the production and distribution of plastic, then getting consumers to give it up is an uphill battle. Greenwashing by brands also misdirects the urban consumer, who believes certified organic foods and electric cars are solutions to environmental threats.

Social norms, values and rewards

Social norms also influence the adoption of eco-friendly behaviour. When culture recognises and rewards people’s efforts in adopting eco-friendly behaviour, they feel motivated to sustain it. Currently, wearing out of fashion or repeated clothes at social events is against the norm, and this creates dissonance for a conscious consumer. Diverse audiences will have different means, values, cultures, and worldviews, so a one-size fits all campaign won’t work.

Opportunities for communicators and entrepreneurs

Effective media campaigns integrate communications with strategic program actions to drive real outcomes. WWF Netherlands timed a price reduction on renewable energy with a media campaign on its environmental benefits, resulting in a 40% increase in green energy adoption. Tesco Malaysia reduced plastic bag use by 50% with its Unforgettable Bag which offered a recycled alternative and price incentives for reuse. Both campaigns knocked down barriers to the availability and affordability of an alternative, paved the way for its adoption in the market, and directed and motivated consumers to embrace the change.

Effectiveness is not how many likes or views a campaign gets on social media; it is the realisation of the specific conservation objective of the campaign. Nonprofits have an opportunity to align communications with a theory of change; design specialised campaigns and calls to action by identifying a specific behaviour (pdf) or campaign objective; target diverse audiences after researching their unique situation, barriers and enablers.

Shores of Silence, a Mike Pandey film resulting in protecting the whale shark under Indian law and global CITES list, was distributed to influential delegates, not disseminated for general awareness. Strategic communication focuses on end goals, not awareness.

Entrepreneurs have an opportunity to shift from a ‘make and sell’ to a ‘sense and respond’ approach to developing lifestyle alternatives for mainstream markets or commodities. Along with targeted campaigns and well-equipped markets, knowledge-based tools/ apps can empower urban consumers to recognise greenwashing or weigh the environmental impact of lifestyle alternatives.

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