Sustainable living is rooted in Indian culture, it's time to look at alternatives to our high-carbon lifestyles

There are things that can be easily fixed, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to bite the bullet and make the effort.


We've all heard about the climate crisis the world is currently facing, and everyone is in imminent danger of losing their way of life. The only way to keep this calamity at bay is to make immediate changes in the way we think about environmental responsibility and our lifestyles.

Go Green! Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! None of those is an option or choice for us anymore — they need to be our way of life today. Living an eco-friendly existence has been advocated time and again by countless activists. But the issue has been taken up on war footing after it was made popular by 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Today, people are growing more responsible and more aware of their personal carbon footprint. Many are also looking at alternatives to traditional, polluting or energy-intensive products and technologies. But the practice of sustainability is not widely known. There is also a dearth of "eco-friendly" options readily available to us at the store down the road.

Living a sustainable life can be made a lot easier and lighter on your wallet if there were, in fact, accessible alternatives to our common, everyday items. One of the reasons alternatives aren't very easily available is because there aren't many companies producing them. It's been 112 years since the first plastic, bakelite, was invented. And in that time, plastic has taken over our lives dramatically, with single-use products from our homes and hangout spots landing up in oceans.

 Sustainable living is rooted in Indian culture, its time to look at alternatives to our high-carbon lifestyles

Sustainable living is the need of the hour.

To understand sustainability from the perspective of a business, and what Indian companies are doing to offer more sustainable options to consumers, I spoke to Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer at the Mahindra Group. 

Mahindra conducted a survey of around 2,000 people between the ages of 25 and 30 to find out how the public perceives climate change, sustainable alternatives, and the role businesses play in climate action. They found out Indians would like to do the right thing and make choices that are good for the environment but the alternatives are not readily available. 

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

What is sustainability? How does Mahindra define it?

Anirban Ghosh (AG): The Brundtland Commission, in their 1987 report 'Our Common Future', defined the term 'sustainable development' as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The 17 sustainable development goals as set out by the UN.

The 17 sustainable development goals as set out by the UN.

This is a wonderful way of articulating sustainability. But while it is a great definition for the United Nations, doesn't tell the business what to do. The Mahindra Group has adopted the definition: "Sustainability is about building an enduring business while rejuvenating the environment and enabling stakeholders to rise."

What do Indian citizens think about living sustainably? 

AG: We surveyed roughly 2,000 people between 25-50 years of age in five major Indian cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore. We expected to hear responses like ‘What is climate change?’ or ‘Why do we have to change the way we live our lives?’, but instead realised that people were well-aware of the problem and were willing to take action. We also learned that there were very few sustainable options available to people and what was available wasn't always an economical or accessible choice. If I wanted to buy an electric car today, there isn't a "good" option out there that's both affordable and does a good job.

Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is not easy when there are no viable alternatives. Image credit: Getty

Living an eco-friendly lifestyle is not easy when there are no viable alternatives. Image credit: Getty

Can developing nations like India adopt sustainability without ample alternatives?

AG: Can India afford to be water-scarce? That's a rhetorical question. India needs water, and with that logic, the answer to your question would be "No, India cannot afford to be a non-sustainable country and we need to adopt sustainable practices." We all tend to look at the issue with a varying degree of inherent bias. In this case, the bias is that sustainability is expensive, and leads to a trade-off between development and the environment. I think over the last few years, we have found these biases are misplaced.

One of the biggest LED projects is taking place in India.

One of the biggest LED projects is taking place in India.

In fact, if you were to adopt sustainable practices, you would save money, and in almost no case will you put the development of India at risk. For example, if having lights in the house is a sign of development, then 300 million Indians wouldn't have lights in their house if LED technology (sustainable technology) did not exist and wasn't adopted on a broad scale.

It's also easier for us (Indians), in my view, to adopt this lifestyle because the ethos of sustainability is rooted in our country. We have only started messing up in a big way in recent times, with a growing population, greater prosperity and the search for convenience. We wanted to ape the Western world because we've perceived they had a better life. I think if we clean up our cities, our rivers and our air, life will become that much better.

Are there any challenges unique to India on its journey to becoming sustainable?

AG: One of India's biggest challenges is our demand for energy. Not only is it on a consistent rise, but it will also continue to increase in the short and medium-term as the earning potential of people increases. So far, we have met these demands using energy from coal. Governments and think tanks have looked at this problem (sustainable sources of energy) in great detail and crunching the numbers has led them to the conclusion that it simply isn't possible to be energy-secure in the short and medium-term without the use of coal. Till that changes, our continuous use of coal will only cause our carbon emissions to increase further. 

India depends on coal for its current energy needs but it should also develop renewable energy projects.

India depends on coal for its current energy needs but it should also develop renewable energy projects.

But, I think India could potentially use this as an opportunity to leapfrog and set up renewable energy plants on a wide scale. With a country like the US, which uses five times more the amount of coal per capita than India does, there is little chance of such wide-scale adoption to power growth as infrastructure is already in place and they need to decrease their usage from today.

Another thing that people think of as a challenge is poverty. As I see it, a nation with 22 percent of its population below the poverty line is also a huge opportunity: to develop in a way that is sustainably low on emissions. We can come out of poverty using low-carbon methods such that our per capita emissions are nowhere near the numbers the Western world is seeing today, with our eyes still set firmly on development and prosperity.

(Also read: The key to India's solar energy dreams lies in public co-operation, not just in an investor-led approach)

Is balancing low-emission goals with sustainability too ambitious? Any success stories India can aspire to replicate?

AG: India is going to be the first, emerging country to develop using a low carbon path. In the case of developing countries, with your main focus on China, they developed by adopting a carbon-intensive path. As a matter of fact (and statistics), China has become the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, even outranking the EU and the USA in recent years.

India won't be able to follow the path that China has, where development is concerned — with the use of thermal power, steel, and cement on a scale that is frankly unimaginable. For the longest time, more than 60-70 percent of the steel manufactured worldwide came to China. India is already making strides towards following a less carbon-intensive path.

It will be a fascinating journey, and I don’t think we can copy-paste a solution from anywhere else to fit our sustainable development plans.

Is any infrastructure needed to make sustainability accessible to the masses?

AG: I believe that the least we can do for the people is give them access to clean water, clean air, good food, climate-friendly accommodation and transportation. That's a solid start. What we need is:

Sustainable public transport: Lots of metros, electric cars and shared mobility that will enable everyone to commute and move around in an eco-friendly manner.

Building a green building is not more expensive than building a conventional building.

Building a green building is not more expensive than building a conventional building.

Housing for the future: 70 percent of the buildings that we will need in 2050 haven't been built yet. That's because today, 30 percent of India lives in urban areas, which are expected to double to 60 percent in the next 30 years. Buildings are notorious for being emission-intensive. Some 30-40 percent of the world emissions come from building because of lighting, heating, cooling, etc.

But we have the technology that can help us build green buildings and cut our emissions by 30-40 percent. The good thing is that it is no longer more expensive to build a green building than it is to build a conventional building. Now the question is to enable builders to only build green buildings. One of the things that the Mahindra Group hopes to do is make an impact on building codes such that even people that don't understand "green buildings" end up building green if they follow the norms.

Providing people with clean water is a basic need.

Providing people with clean water is a basic need.

Clean air and water: People in Mumbai don't have to fume over clean air like they do in Delhi. If we look at examples from the recent past, we will see that Beijing was horribly polluted, as was London and the Thames River, which was an "open sewer" as late as the early 20th century. Singapore, too, was a dirty island till the 1960s. We all know that those countries have seen vast improvements since. So it isn't that we can't do the same and clean up our air and water bodies.

Even the highly-urbanised, densely populated capital of Philippines, Manila, has a water body that resembled the sewage canal-esque state of the Mithi river in Maharashtra and the Adhiganga in Kolkata. There are towns in India where people have long-forgotten names of rivers because they haven't seen anything resembling a river in decades. They're well-known sewage canals to locals.

These are things that have relatively easy fixes that don't require us to reinvent the wheel — just bite the bullet and make the effort. The question is no longer about whether there is infrastructure, the question is which of the many attainable transformations towards sustainability we can doggedly pick up first, and after that, to implement them across the country with the technology and resources at our disposal today.

How do you plan to use the survey's findings?

AG: We want to try and find solutions to the problems and challenges that we are facing. We are already investing in electric cars and scooters, micro-irrigation, green buildings, waste-to-energy technologies, renewable energy and alternatives that you and I will need if we want to live a low-carbon lifestyle.

The survey also confirmed our hypothesis — that we need to look at creative, new business opportunities that are now popping up, with lifestyle changes and climate action in the limelight.

A sign that shows a parking spot for an electric car.

A sign that shows a parking spot for an electric car.

We also want to share the survey's findings with anyone who cares to listen, because it's in the best interest of industries to find alternatives to what they are doing now. We've coined a new term — 'Alternativism'. It can be broken down and perceived in two different ways — as 'Alternativism', which suggests a move towards alternatives, or as 'alter-nativism', which suggests a shift in perception of "native" actions or products in favour of better ones.

We believe that solutions to the greatest challenge humans have ever faced aren't going to be found with approaches that are conventional and orthodox. It needs constant experimentation and the use of new methods, whether it's a new business model, a new hiring practice, or a unique way of leveraging technology.

We need an alternative approach, or in short, Alternativism.

Indians need viable alternatives if they have to make the change to living sustainably. We've all heard about the climate crisis the world is currently facing. The only way to deal with is by finding and following a low carbon way of life.

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