Conscious Consumption in Bhutan

The airport in Paro has one of the most technical landings in the world  Having spent five years building the sustainable consumption work at the World Economic Forum, and now finalising a book on sustainable consumption, it is fair to say that the topic is rarely far from my mind. This continues to be the case even as I shift to a new role, and now I wonder how Bhutan’s emerging middle class will aspire to consume.

At a personal level, I try to be a conscious consumer. I am vegetarian because I know of the exponentially greater impacts of meat in terms of water and energy use. I weigh my purchases carefully, buying second-hand when I can and especially choosing quality and durability over quantity. I reuse when possible and then recycle to the point where it annoys most people.

In my work over the past few years, one theme that has constantly come up is the role that geography and economic development play in sustainable consumption. With 7 billion people on the planet and an inevitable trajectory towards 9 billion, we can no longer be gluttons of consumption in feigned ignorance of the need to allocate resources fairly across the globe. Between now and 2030, 70 million people will join the middle class each year, moving out from under the rock of poverty and into the sunshine of consumption. With this will come increased demand for goods and services associated with a new middle class: mobile phones, washing machines, televisions, cars…

We checked into our Druk Air flight to Bhutan with an embarrassing 150kg of checked luggage, all too aware of the hypocrisy of being conscious consumers with so much stuff. I brought three cameras, two suits, one bicycle and a lot of painfully selected outdoor clothing and camping equipment. The cognitive dissonance (and excess luggage fees) made us pack carefully, but still the supplies for a year in Bhutan added up.

In Europe we were conspicuous with the amount of luggage we had, but upon landing at Bhutan’s international airport in Paro, we were quite surprised to find ourselves in good company. As the tourists picked their bags off and the Bhutanese gravitated inMore than half the pieces on the belt were giant LCD TVsto small clusters, the small airport’s only luggage carousel started filling up with boxes. Large and rectangular, box after box lay flat on the belt, their corners hanging over as they navigated the single u-turn on the belt in front of us, and finally I could read the magic letters: LCD. Fully half of the pieces on the carousel were 40 inch flat screen televisions, each soon to channel a nearly infinite amount of full-colour HD aspirations to Bhutan’s new middle class.

Nearly every individual in this country grew up in an austerity that we cannot even imagine. No electricity, no running water, no refrigeration, no shoes, and of course no radio, television or internet. This was the norm for most of the country 30 years ago. While at a neighbour’s last night, we heard stories how our host, an accomplished artist who has traveled extensively to the United States over the past dozen years, remembers his first pair of Indian shoes with rubber soles which he only acquired as a grown man. Over dinner we were told of his encounter with an Amish community in Tennessee: He simply could not comprehend how a community surrounded by the 21st century would choose to ignore the benefits of light, electricity and the internal combustion engine.

In turn, I try to understand our host’s antipathy for this conceit of the Amish, (and hide my own appreciation for their austerity). The fact that I haven’t owned a television in a dozen years and make conscious decisions to limit my consumption would probably not make sense to most of my fellow Americans; it would possibly make even less sense to someone in Bhutan who grew up without so many things we take for granted.

Arriving in Paro with a lot of baggage!After nearly five years exploring so many facets of consumption with business leaders and experts from around the world, everything that I have learned has been challenged within minutes of arriving into my new home country. As the Bhutanese embark on a new journey as consumers, their aspirations quite rightfully extend beyond televisions. Meanwhile, I embark on my own journey in this amazing place – with my 75kgs of very conscious consumption.

By: Randall Krantz

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21 responses to “Conscious Consumption in Bhutan

  1. You make a very interesting point about how there is a growing middle class in certain countries with growing appetities for things they never had before. Now that they can afford more material things, why wouldn’t they? And this attitude, is probably why they find the Amish way of life so odd…..But I think that people have WAY too much stuff today—a look at the local thrift store reveals just that. My husband and I try to cut down on whenever we can, but even still I feel we sometimes way more than we know what to do with! Great post!

  2. Hi Randall,
    I don’t know if you are aware that the term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who has opened Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after the demise of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk.
    Thanks for sharing this aspiring blog! http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

  3. Nice post ! :)
    But, being austere(in some cases) isn’t so appreciable. I strongly feel the necessity of one being exposed to the scarce improvements in the world. No offense intended. ;)

  4. “Over dinner we were told of his encounter with an Amish community in Tennessee: He simply could not comprehend how a community surrounded by the 21st century would choose to ignore the benefits of light, electricity and the internal combustion engine.

    In turn, I try to understand our host’s antipathy for this conceit of the Amish, (and hide my own appreciation for their austerity). The fact that I haven’t owned a television in a dozen years and make conscious decisions to limit my consumption would probably not make sense to most of my fellow Americans; it would possibly make even less sense to someone in Bhutan who grew up without so many things we take for granted.”

    Bhutanese are human, they are not saints in coveting more material things. I’m sure I’m wierd enough not to want to drive, or buy a car in the eyes of my relatives who immigrated from mainland China to Canada.

    The wake-up of conspicuous consumption and bad effects for those who did live austere lives for so long, might actually start in the stomach: by eating too much and getting fat/unhealthy. I kid you not. I see it in the same relatives.

  5. What a beautiful country to be moving to. I was lucky enough to travel as a designer and spend a few days studying their way of life and culture. It will remain one of the most endearing and beautiful places and I have been lucky enough to visit. But I also had some of the same misgivings you seem to have regarding their future. Enjoy, say hello to beautiful monastries and packs of wild dogs for me….. :) :)

  6. Simply put, we have too much stuff, developing countries want that stuff, and we’re trying to learn how to live with less stuff. Unfortunately, the stuff we like: cell phones, computers, fluorescent bulbs are all toxic to our environment. So we eat sprouts and mine rare earths to satisfy our need for gadgets. You can’t win. The words “green” and “sustainable” are the millennials’ “new and improved.” Congratulations on being “Freshly Pressed.”

  7. Most people who don’t have a lot of stuff want it. People who have a lot of stuff want better stuff or newer stuff. That’s really the crux of the problem. It’s hard for most people to see that all of this stuff has a price tag–and not the one you paid at the store. No one ever does the math.

  8. its a good choice of life style you’ve made….the thing is we have robbed the planed off its natural resources already I would say and now if anyone else tries to consume on even the same level, we call them exploiters and they call us unfair because we have already taken advantage before realizing….
    i m not trying to make a point for anyone…. but glad that some of us do care…because we need to….we’ must leave behind something for the generations to come.

  9. Good luck in Bhutan.

    It is interesting to see the contrast between the point that emerging middle classes — which are great for countries, and people in general in so many ways — and older middle classes that are beginning to question the way they consume and their economic model is built.

    I hope that the younger generation of Westerners will choose to live simpler, own less, and consume less.

    It will be interesting to see how long it takes for emerging middle classes to feel the same.

  10. You know, I think we are at an interesting tipping point. I’m fascinated by the implications of our survival instinct in what we term ‘progress’. However, I am part of a generation who will actively want to see their children have ‘less’ than we did. Ok, it’s not a mainstream goal just yet, but it’s coming…I hope :)

  11. To live like the Amish in the land of plenty requires a lot of restraint but tradition seems to be the the binding factor here but to lead a minimalistic life by free choice shows that we care for this Earth without any bindings or compulsions.
    We all need to pass through this cycle I guess of first “we don`t possess much” to “we possess a lot” and then to “giving it all up”. That is what renunciation is.

  12. I find your juxtaposition regarding austerity an interesting contemplation. Having grown up in the states my choice of minimalism is just that – a choice – and I was proud of it. Would I choose it if I was living in an environment where it wasn’t a choice but a hard felt reality? It reminds me of walking in our university district here and 1 out of 2 beggars on the street are rich kids who want to experience the apparent freedom of the homeless. Easy for them to have this perspective because they have the luxury of choice. Hmmmm – so do I. Thank you for this post – I am humbled….

  13. Kuzuzampo-la & thanks for the post.

    It’ll be interesting to see how consumption trends develop in Bhutan, the land where Gross National Happiness reigns supreme. The measure equally values cultural preservation and development…And I wonder if economic growth (if accompanied with a growth in demand for consumer products) will be curtailed to preserve Bhutan’s culture. Already you can see the youth taking off their national dress (the Gho and Kira) the moment they are permitted to, replacing it with jeens and t-shirt. Enjoy your stay!

  14. Thank you for this post. Grew up impoverished so understand the mind set to finally! be able to have certain consumer goods. Kinda binged for awhile until I recalled how little it takes to live a daily life. Thankfully had parents who were good role models. I try to downscale but it is still a challenge. Thanks for a great post. Enjoy your stay.

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