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Sweets, fizzy drinks and skin lighteners: the products being sold to the poor


McDonald's in India

How can those in the rich west with warehouse-sized supermarkets and fast food, deny the world’s poor a taste of the same? Photograph: Ajit Kumar/Associated Press


Powered by article titled “Sweets, fizzy drinks and skin lighteners: the products being sold to the poor” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Wednesday 27th August 2014 06.00 UTC

Visit any roadside store in India’s rural hinterland and the stock is remarkably similar. Sachets of shampoo and washing detergent hanging from the window frame; counters piled high with sugary sweets and fizzy drinks; cigarette lighters, pre-paid mobile phone cards and biscuits line the shelves. They are a picture of the free market in miniature.

Yet well-meaning westerners – health experts, development workers, sustainability folk and so on – are wont to wince at the sight. Accusations of exploiting the poor follow. Warnings of public health disasters or environmental collapse are made.

Are they right to worry? Yes, in part. Statistics clearly show a massive increase in obesity as manufacturers of unhealthy processed foods ratchet up their marketing in the developing world. As for the planet, even the World Economic Forum (not known for putting the reins on global capitalism) admits we cannot carry on as we are. If the world’s middle-classes expand as the WEF predicts, we’ll soon need more than four Earths to manufacture all the iPads, cars and crisps they demand (pdf).

There is a knotty ethical problem underlying such arguments. How can those in the rich west – with our warehouse-sized supermarkets and homes full of energy-sapping mod cons – deny the world’s poor a taste of the same?

It’s a dilemma. “On the one hand, it’s unfortunate for us to repeat the same mistakes in the third world as in the first world”, says Ajaita Shah, co-founder of Frontier Markets, an Indian-based solar provider targeting low-income communities at the “base of the pyramid” (BoP).

On the flipside, she understands the moral outrage felt by millions in the developing world when the west wags its finger at them for wanting Cheerios for breakfast. “You’re basically disempowering that rural customer by not giving them a choice”, she says, in reference the removal of unsustainable or unhealthy goods from the shelves. “It’s kind of hypocritical because you’ve been consuming these from day one”.

The industrialised world needs to get its own house in order before it starts preaching to the world’s poor. Anything else is morally indefensible. Not to mention a political non-starter, as the continued stalemate in global climate change negotiations shows.

Hypocritical and paternalistic though the west may seem, however, the fact remains that current consumption patterns are unsustainable. Nor should it discourage leaders in the developing world from assessing the pros and cons of western consumerism and considering a more sustainable path.

“It’s important for emerging markets not to replicate the west’s unsustainable model, which ignores the social and environmental externalities of mass consumption. After all, we’re talking about an even greater scale here, so the negative repercussions are exponential”, says Marcel Fukiyama, chief executive of non-profit CDI Global and a specialist on Brazil’s low-income consumer markets.

Turning the BoP clock back is tricky if not impossible. Business will continue its push to turn the poor into consumers. The prize is simply too big for companies to ignore: $5tn, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute.

What’s the solution? Companies should be up-front with poor consumers about the direct and indirect impacts of the products they are flogging. The early signs are worrying. Multinational fast food firms agree not to market to children in the west, for instance. Yet, as the example of India shows, they do so liberally in emerging markets.

“You [as a retailer] don’t deny them access; you just make sure they have all the tools to make informed decisions before making the same mistakes twice”, says Shah.

Companies looking to enhance the lives of the poor through socially or environmentally friendly products need to get smart. What is it about the branding or marketing that has low-income consumers spending the money they have on a skin lightening cream like Fair & Lovely rather than fluoride toothpaste for their children? What is about the price point, product quality or after-sales service that dissuades the poor from buying water purifiers or cook stoves en masse? Retailers of mass-marketed pap know the answers to these questions only too well; so too must purveyors of sustainable goods.


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