Sunday, August 21, 2011

Big is Better and More Beautiful

Recently, there was a report in TOI that Starbucks has introduced a 916 ml coffee cup. Until now, coffee retailer Starbucks offered 3 sizes: ‘tall’, ‘grande’ and ‘venti’. The coffee giant is adding a new size, which will hold more than the contents of a normally full human stomach. The new ‘trenta’ size will hold 31 ounces, or 916 ml of select Starbucks beverages, and will top the current largest offering (‘venti’) by 7 oz. To put this in perspective, the average capacity of a human stomach is 900 ml. The quantity is much more than a 750ml bottle of beer.

A report states that over the past few decades, portion sizes of everything from muffins to sandwiches have grown considerably in America. In a matter of 20 years, two slices of Pizza has gone up from 500 to 850 calories, coffee from 45 to 400 cal, popcorn from 270 to 630, bagel 140 to 350, cheese burgers from 390 to 590. To top it all, when McDonald’s first started in 1955, its only hamburger weighed around 1.6 ounces; now, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of500percent.

Consumerism has entered all facets of American life forcing the people to eat more, buy more and spend more. The disease is not just restricted to food alone; bigger cars, larger houses with no relation to the number of occupants are some of the examples of over consumption. It is reported, ‘The marketing industry is forcing children to grow up quickly. Industry research reveals that children 11 and older don't consider themselves children anymore. The Toy Manufacturers of America have changed their target market from birth to 14, to birth to ten years of age’. Similarly, ‘By treating pre-adolescents as independent, mature consumers, marketers have been very successful in removing the gatekeepers (parents) from the picture—leaving them vulnerable to potentially unhealthy messages about body image, sexuality, relationships and violence.’

At 246 pounds per capita (carcass weight), people in the United States and Hungary are the largest consumers of meat, followed by those in Australia (234 pounds) and Canada and Belgium-Luxembourg (201 pounds).USA represents 5% of the world's population, yet it consumes over 30% of its resources. Over consumption of energy, oil and other natural resources are well documented.

In his books 'The Waste Makers and The Hidden Persuaders', Vance Packard, the late journalist and social critic, suggested that Americans have been seduced and manipulated by corporations and businesses into becoming ‘wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals’ through the weapon of choice - too much choice -this is after all, a country which offers 400 kinds of breakfast cereal!! Manufacturers and advertisers have managed to seduce and persuade consumers to buy things they don't need and don't know they want. This including bringing in the ‘two-of- everything’ syndrome, from cars to refrigerators to television, often because it came in an upgraded version or new colour or design. Soon obsolescence, including planned or manipulated obsolescence (such as advancing the use-by date on perfectly good and usable food, medicine, and other goods) became the ‘in’ thing in persuading people to throw things out. A ‘death date’ was built into products so that they wore out quickly and needed to be replaced. By manipulating the public into mindless consumerism, Packard believed corporations made Americans ‘more wasteful, imprudent, and carefree in our consuming habits’, thus using up natural resources at an alarming rate.

While the US consumes 24% of the world's energy, the average American is said to use as much energy as 13 Chinese, 31 Indians and 128 Bangladeshis.

In all this, where is India headed? As regards consumption, we are yet to catch up with the West. No doubt, we have registered an increase in per capita consumption in various sectors in the last 20 to 30 years –but it relates primarily to our population acquiring minimum purchasing capacity for survival. Today a large number of Indian populations can afford to buy - cycles, hawaii chappals, battery torches, tooth paste, tooth brush, fans, watches, clothes etc.

Fortunately there is a ‘thread of thrift’ running in the Indian DNA. Somewhere along the evolution chain we have developed a habit of ‘making do’ with whatever we have. This spirit of adjustment has manifested itself in more ways than one. One look at our food assures us that we will not go the American way.

Masala Dosa has remained the same size – 8 to 9 inches in dia for almost 40 years – if at all, the dia may have reduced in some hotels. MTR now serves mini dosas in their thalis. Even our idli and vada has remained the same. I cannot imagine eating an idli which is five times bigger than its present size. Tea and coffee continue to be served in 120 to 140 ml size standard ‘lota’ (cup) – in fact in Bangalore we have a unique way of serving coffee – ‘one by two’ meaning one cup of coffee divided into two servings and served to two people. The term ‘one by two’ is a USP of Bangalore. Instead of increasing our consumption, we have gone around and decreased, by introducing – Mini Thalis, Plate Meals and Executive Lunches - less strain on the pocket and the stomach too.

If rice is left over, we make ‘chitra anna’ (lemon Rice) the next morning or mix it with water and have ‘kanji’ or add it to idli batter to get better texture and so on. Left over and dried bread slices are cut and made into ‘Bread Uppit’ – a remarkably tasty dish for breakfast. Nothing is wasted – refrigerator is manna from heaven for Indians – store and eat later on. Sour curd is used to make ‘majjige huli” (curd curry) with vegetables or for making ‘rava idli’ and in uppit to provide additional zing. The list is endless. In some cuisines even the inner part of the outer skin of fresh peas is used to make a tasty vegetable dish.

The other day both my Bata hawaii chappals’ strap got cut. My American cousin would have rushed to the shop and bought two new pairs. I also ran, but to a shoe repair chap and got the strap stitched – they are working fine. My washing machine is 11 years old and performing well – why go in for a newer model, which can talk, walk, sing, and dance? Talking about washing machines – all the old semi automatic washing machines are used to churn curd to extract butter in many parts of Delhi and Punjab. I find discarding good electronic computers and software, just because they have become obsolete or been overtaken by obsolescence, is a criminal act. Courtesy Mr Bill Gates and the like – it’s the ‘in’ thing today to discard and embrace new technology mindlessly. Cell phones are an excellent example of use and throw. I squeeze toothpaste and shaving cream tubes till my fingers pain or use a ball pen to sqeeze out every bit to ensure no finished product is ever wasted. Newspapers are re-used for vegetable waste collection, plastic bottles are used over and over again from storing food to growing money plants to pen holders for the kid’s room, banana leaves are used for all festivals and functions involving the feeding of larger numbers- the list is endless. The teachers in my wife’s school use old used notebooks as scrap books in which they stick important new paper cuttings that they want to share with the class. If Pepsi cans are bought at all, they are later used to collect coins in. Old perfume bottles are kept in the drawer containing ‘unmentionables’ in order to give them what’s left of their fragrance. Mugs with broken handles are used as pencil holders. I have started a campaign to make Jal Vayu Vihar Association into a paperless office.

The Tata group has recently started a budget hotel chain ‘Ginger’ which gives the basic minimum with no frills. The rooms are small, clean and having only the bare essentials. It’s a welcome change from the very opulent and exorbitantly priced five star hotels. Similarly their small car ‘Nano’ – an ideal car for Indian conditions- ‘small is savvy’.

Enrico Fabian is a German-born, Delhi-based photographer whose work is on display at the India Habitat Center. Fabian spent three months in 2008 working alongside the NGO Chintan documenting the daily life of the Kabariwala, a general term used for people in India who collect and sell recyclable materials. Some of his findings are truly astonishing and an eye opener to many. He notes” Recycling is done to make money by low-level Kabariwalas who sift through dirt, food and shit to collect plastic bottles, paper, glass, and metal”. According to Fabian, there are about 1,50,000 Kabaris total in Delhi alone who recycle about 59% of the city’s waste to support themselves and their families. Further, landfill trash- pickers collect what street-level trash-pickers miss. Over a million people in India earn their livelihood through waste recycling.

At the heart of Mumbai city - surrounded by posh, luxurious skyscrapers - is Asia's largest slum, Dharavi. It spreads over 525 acres (212 hectares) and is home to more than a million people. Recycling is one of the slum's biggest industries. Thousands of tonnes of scrap plastic, metal, paper, cotton, soap and glass revolve through Dharavi each day. Roughly 6,000 tonnes of rubbish produced each day by a swelling Mumbai continues to sustain an estimated 30,000 rag pickers, including many residents of Dharavi. The slum is also host to some 400 recycling units. Walking through Dharavi, home to an estimated 15,000 single room factories, it is difficult to find anything that is not recycled here. A new estimate by economists of the output of the slum is as impressive as it seems improbable: £700m a year.

Figure 1 Dharavi Plastic Recycling Scene

Western analysts link recycling to poverty – I am not very sure. Recycling is intrinsic to us and we need to not only continue but cherish this very valuable social habit. The danger lies in our children becoming wasteful and our industry using more packaging than is required, forsaking the environment for good looking products on super market shelves.

Hope and pray that the Indian corporate sector does not blindly follow the Americans in encouraging people to over consume and disguise chicanery as a marketing gimmick.