Last year, just months into the COVID-19 pandemic, search interest in ‘How to live a sustainable lifestyle’ had increased by more than 4,550% on Google search engine. Building immunity was instantly linked to organic food, job cuts and limited resources resulted in mindful spending (which further caused a decline in rabid consumerism) and restricted travel and social distancing norms forced people to adopt sustainable travel options.

Sustainable lifestyle — which is broadly defined as a conscious choice made by an individual or a community or society to reduce the use of natural as well as personal resources — became our default mode of functioning during the initial phase of COVID-19 induced health crisis. It was perhaps the only positive by-product of the unprecedented economic, social, and personal losses that we endured collectively.

However, as we return to the ‘normal’, and vaccines tackle the COVID-19 virus, experts weigh in on whether the sustainable choices that we made during the pandemic will translate to permanent behavioural changes or were they just a momentary fad induced by fear.

Behavioural Changes and Mindful Consumption

As far as individual choices are concerned, the pandemic has forced many to understand the profound impact their daily choices — like fashion, and food —can have on the environment. People are more mindful and aware of making even those routine everyday choices now. It may lead to more people endorsing a sustainable lifestyle, pointed out Mahima Gujral, Founder of SUI, a sustainable fashion brand.

“Online shopping definitely got a boost once the lockdown restrictions receded, and of course, there are many who find fast fashion more affordable and are purchasing it every day. However, what the pandemic brought along is a larger sense of awareness on the ongoing issues with our environment and why it is important for us to start paying attention,” Said Gujral.

“This wouldn’t necessarily mean that consumers would give up fast fashion, sustainable fashion is still an expensive proposition for many in India. But consumers have definitely started to think about their buying habits and why it matters to be conscious of their possessions. I think that itself is a big win,” she added.

Gujral pointed out that overzealous fast fashion consumption is exceptionally harmful to the environment because they are made of cheaper and low-quality fabrics, usually made using polyester blends. At the same time, the colours are dyed using chemical dyes. “Polyester is a great material with a terrible impact on the environment; it is harmful to produce and at the same time, when thrown away takes years and years to degrade adding to landfills. Chemical dyes are harmful to our waterways and contribute to water pollution. At the same time, polyester production contributes to high greenhouse gas emissions. In figures, the garment and textiles industry contributes to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and 20% to the world’s water pollution,” She claimed.

COVID-19 has definitely pushed the fashion industry to move beyond using ‘sustainability’ as a buzz word, to proactively promoting sustainable fashion. In 2020, as several fashion shows, including Lakme Fashion Week, went online, many designers’ collections harked back to India’s historic textile culture, which is based on sustainable manufacturing. Apart from that, for the first time in India, the idea of ‘thrifting’ or shopping pre-used items became fashionable, because it was a sustainable choice.

While such sustainable fashion trends are being accepted by more evolved, globally aware and inspired premium customers, the hope is that it would percolate to the middle class and eventually to Tier II and tier III markets, where India’s most extensive consumer base resides. It has already happened in the case of food, as organic and natural food products have become popular choices in these parts of India, within the last year.

The Organic and Natural Movement

Gauri Sarin, a social entrepreneur, and the Founder Director of Bhumijaa, a platform for organic agripreneur told News18, “Until now the popular perception was that organic food is exuberantly priced, and therefore, unaffordable. However, during the pandemic, as people’s focus shifted to organic and natural options to maintain good health and high immunity against the COVID-19 virus, they realised that it was nothing but a misconception. There are many organic options, farmers market where farmers sell at reasonable prices directly, due to which, despite being more expensive than chemically produced food, they are quite affordable.”

Sarin pointed out that sustainable food choices are a long-term behavioural change, and Indians are more likely to adopt it in the future. “What happened during the pandemic was a free flow of information, and education on food consumption, environment and diseases, and people proactively looked for more data on health food, supplements, and Ayurveda. More importantly, consumers had the time and inclination to adopt sustainable choices, “she added.

It also reflected in the organic farming sector as more farmers showed the propensity to produce organically, or naturally, as consumers shifted their preferences.

“The organic players were quick to adapt to technology and therefore, were able to do a far better job at reaching out to the consumers during the pandemic, than they generally did, through the organic markets. Many organic players became visible during this time. Therefore, not just consumers, many agripreneurs and farmers also took the organic route during this time.”

Environmental Sustainability vs Economic Sustainability

In the initial phase of the lockdown, news reports of reduced pollution levels, and clear skies had spread good cheer. However, as the government relaxed travel restrictions, the usual traffic jams were back on the road in no time. The pollution levels also skyrocketed, much to the chagrin of the environmentalists.

Souvik Bhattacharjya, Associate Director at the Resource Efficiency and Governance division at TERI, told News18, “The decline in the pollution was bound to happen during the lockdown because all economic and manufacturing activities had come to a complete halt and there was no commuting. But that obviously could not have continued forever, and things had to reopen. After reopening, we had seen some interesting changes. The number of people using public transport has come down, which would have been a good development had the sales of two-wheelers and private cars not increased drastically. That only means instead of using public transport, people are opting for personal options, which is obviously not good for the environment. “

Bhattacharjya also added that in other sectors, too, there had been many counterproductive trends. For instance, the footfalls at shopping complexes and malls had fallen only to balance out the increasing sale of perishable as well as non-perishable goods online.

“There is also the question of economic sustainability vis-a-vis environmental sustainability. For instance, during the lockdown, since no one could commute, the pollution levels dipped. But there were also cab and auto drivers who were struggling to stay afloat and feed their family, and the government which is greatly dependent on fuel revenues was unable to get them. So, definitely from an environmental perspective, we had seen an improvement at a social cost. Therefore, the difficult choice that we face now is to understand between economic and environmental sustainability, which one outweighs the other.”

Bhattacharya explained that the budget of 2021 was an example, where the government was trying to balance the two factors, and while economic policies obviously took precedence, discussion on hydrogen mission, and making power distribution companies more financially viable, by bringing in performance-based incentives was also on the table.

He pointed out that another sustainability issue that needs to be addressed with data and research is the work-from-home trend.

“Last year, when everyone was working from home, the overall energy requirements were very low. I am talking about electricity, and given the fact that 3/4th of our electricity is still coming from fossil fuel-based sources, so definitely there was a decrease in demand, which resulted in a decrease in the overall emission,” said Bhattacharjya, and added that despite the preliminary observation, what would happen in terms of the environmental impact if workspaces opt for hybrid models, or continue to allow their staffs to work-from-home in future is something that needs to be studied.

The Need for Social Sustainability

“The sustainability market is continuously increasing and evolving, with 60% of global customers looking for sustainable consumption. In Indians too, there has been a gradual shift towards a sustainable lifestyle, and I believe it is for the long-haul,” said Neelam Chibber, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee, Industree Foundation, an NGO that empowers rural women artisans.

“The shift gained momentum during the pandemic, starting with the food choices people are making, be it organic or pesticide-free products. However, from food, it has quickly percolated into other aspects of our lives, be it the sustainable clothes we wear, or the materials we use to build our homes, or the decorations we put on display,” said Chibber and pointed out that because sustainable choices are becoming an intimate part of our lives, we should also ensure social sustainability for the wellbeing of the artisans who work so hard to make sustainable choices available to us.

“The artisans who manufacture sustainable commodities for consumers were adversely affected by the pandemic and the last year has revealed the critical need to move our artisanal workforce from informal to the formal sector where they will be protected and given the dignity of labour,” she said. The co-founder of Industree Foundation said that in an organised sector, customers are not often aware of the source of sustainable products and under what working conditions have the workers produced them. “Once artisans come under the formal sector, it will not only offer them protection but also help consumers trace the supply chain to the very source of their products,” she added.