If you rely solely on celebrity endorsements, you are likely not fully aware of what you either buy or consume. “Boost is the secret of my energy,” announced Kapil Dev then, as does Virat Kohli now. Do you think they played well just because of consuming Boost (a malted beverage brand)? How many times a day would they have drunk Boost mixed in milk? We are not able to differentiate between the actual and the acted-out, even if several advertisements now include disclaimers about casting models and that the claim is based purely on lab tests. Even this is the result of customers questioning the brand.

The cosmetic brand Fair & Lovely had to change its name to Glow & Lovely following outrage about promoting a narrow vision of what might be considered beautiful. With people becoming more aware, “cause marketing” is on the rise, with some advertisements mentioning how much of the product sales are donated to various causes. The question to ask here is, how much do they spend on their advertising and how proportionate is that to the amount donated?

Another aspect of marketing and sales today is the discount culture. In India, we now have discount sales coinciding with practically every festive occasion. Traditionally, in India, during the Ashada/Aadi month (July–August), many traders and shops start their new accounting process. So, before they start the new accounting year, they want to clear the inventory as much as possible, so they will have room to bring new products for the Diwali/Deepavali celebrations in the next few months. Since there won’t be many sales, they have introduced the discounted sale to get consumers to buy. So, the Aadi/Ashada sale was the only discounted sale we’ve seen before.

But now, we have sales for pre-spring, spring, summer, winter, Friendship Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. Alternatively, there could be a clearance sale or innovative ones like “buy one get one” (BOGO) sales. To be able to provide discounts around the year, manufacturers either have to forgo a part of their profits or suggest a higher maximum recommended retail price (MRP). Alternatively, the cheaper, discounted products may not be high-quality products, with the cheapest products likely to be adulterated.

Consumers’ eagerness for cheaper products often results in some manufacturers and distributors indulging in sharp practices to make a quick profit. One of the more common – and continuing – cases of adulteration involves contaminating milk with substances like urea, detergent, caustic soda, etc. While such practices do not go unnoticed, consumers have to be vigilant and learn how to confirm the quality of milk or other foodstuffs procured from the market. Organisations like the Consumer Guidance Society of India have stepped in to make consumers aware of testing measures as well as collectivise their grievances and seek official redress from the relevant government agencies and courts where necessary.

Adulteration is not simply about contamination and can also involve removing ingredients or mislabelling products. For instance, given consumers’ growing preference for organic produce, sellers are adding labels like organic, natural or fresh for produce that is not organically grown and selling them at lower prices than actual organic produce. Here too, customers have recourse to check whether the produce is certified organic; for instance, by using the label India Organic, etc. Likewise, packaged foods are regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and, when checked and approved for quality, carry the FSSAI mark. Consumers should realise that they can dictate terms and change what they are buying, which will force manufacturers to change their methods of production and distribution.

The US-based charity, the Association for India’s Development (AID), where I volunteered as a website coordinator, has helped further an understanding of the problems people face in India in tandem with global changes and the impact we can have. The AID logo features a hand-drawn outline of Mahatma Gandhi’s facial profile, which I redrew digitally in a higher resolution in 1999; this version is in use even today. I had just read Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth at the time and was even more inspired by his life – his message as he called it – as a result. I took away his message to “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

At AID, we also believed in being self-aware, a term that I understood better after reading the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. Environment degradation was one of the focus areas in our discussions, covering solar power and ethical consumption. I also learnt about organic farming in these discussions, about the corporate irresponsibility that led to the Bhopal gas tragedy and the issues arising from companies selling bottled water.

We began running an “Ecoshop”, offering eco-friendly products and started supporting projects like greening Vellore hills. We trialled several initiatives such as avoiding the use of paper and Styrofoam plates for our gatherings and instead carrying our own plates and glasses. We segregated the waste and paid more money to the waste management company to pick up the segregated waste. Even so, their ability to segregate was stretched when it came to plastic bottles, which were marked with a number ranging from one to seven at the bottom that let the customer know the type of plastic that was used. They picked up some of these bottles and the rest we used to drop in the bin at Georgia Tech.

Be the change, whoever you are!

Excerpted with permission from Back to Bharat: In Search of a Sustainable Future, Nagaraja Prakasam, Penguin India.