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 into 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.
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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