Indian Decade

India Needs Consumption Rethink

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Indian Decade

India Needs Consumption Rethink

Should Indians follow the Western model of growth and consumption? It’s a much needed debate here.

Shreyasi Singh took a break from blogging for Indian Decade as she settled into her role as managing editor of the Indian edition of business magazine Inc. But we're happy to welcome her back from today.


At the beginning of this year, I was lucky enough to find myself at the Make a Difference (MaD) forum in Hong Kong, an annual gathering of young people from across Asia.

Over the three days of the event, which was attended by more than 1,200 people, there was a lot of positive, encouraging talk about how young people need to stand up for the social causes they believe in, and why they should feel empowered enough to believe they can actually make a change. Genuinely well-meaning and smart change initiatives from across Asia – a civic-minded school in India, a green architectural firm in Taiwan, and a corporate volunteer program in China – were talked about. One great speaker after speaker from across the world struck the can-do chord that young people respond to.

But the session that stood out for me, part of the event's opening forum, was by the Hong Kong-based author, Chandran Nair, who has recently written a book called Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Re-shaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet.  At the MaD Forum, Nair talked about the basic premise of his book – why Asia can’t afford to go down the Western economic model route. Nair’s ideas were sharp and cutting – and he laid out clearly why that form of globalization was unsustainable for countries like India and China. He talked about predatory capitalism and aspirational consumption patterns that were being transported from the West to Asia.   

During an interview I managed to grab with him after his session, he told me how in India especially, a much more informed public policy and debate must take place to tackle the question of what is the right development path for us. One anecdote he told me about Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s high-profile, Indian-origin CEO, demonstrates the point perfectly.

In a recent interview to CNBC America, Nooyi apparently said: “I want every product you eat and drink to be a PepsiCo product. I want a larger share of your stomach.” In India, Nooyi is the poster girl for can-do success – success stories don’t get more motivating than an Indian woman at the helm of one of the world’s biggest companies. In a thought provoking article, Nair’s colleague at the Global Institute of Tomorrow, a Hong Kong-based think tank and consulting group, Eric Stryson, lays out why he thinks statements like these, and the intentions behind them, are something Indians must take note of.

“These statements betray the age old value system of the Indian people, even in spite of those who occasionally enjoy a fizzy drink or packet of crisps. Lest one assume these statements are only directed at Americans, it is of note that in 2010, more than 45 percent of the company’s revenue came from outside North America and 30 percent came from emerging and developing markets such as India,” he said.

“PepsiCo India ranked fifth among the $60 billion snacks and beverage company’s businesses for sales volume growth, as of August 2011. But is this good for India? Do Indians want to eat more fast foods and buy more of everything they eat and drink from multinational companies?”

As Indians, that’s a question we would be wise to ask ourselves every now and then. Certainly in Delhi, where I live, there’s a sad aping of the Western consumption model. In fact, during Christmas this year, I was amazed at how zealously the festival was celebrated here. Beyond the malls and shopping districts donning the look that used to be associated only with Diwali, regular Hindu, Muslim and Sikh parents were throwing Christmas parties for their children.

While the secular beauty of this is endearing, it’s the aspiration to celebrate Christmas, and particularly indulging in its one big feature – the exchanging of gifts – that I found a bit bizarre. Isn’t Nair right? To feel like we’re developing, is this what we need to do – buy more gifts, and eat more junk?