What impact does cultural orientation have on consumers’ attitudes to managerial practices in different parts of the world and how can this knowledge benefit organisations? Professors Tonya Boone and Rishtee Kumar Batra share insights from their research on Indian and American consumers’ perceptions about sustainability.
Management research has focussed a great deal on understanding how cultural difference influences employees’ and consumers’ interactions with productive organisations. In particular, the need to understand the cultural distances between Eastern and Western nations is becoming increasingly important because of the tremendous economic growth taking place in India and China. Many of the prevalent managerial practices were developed in the West, yet at the same time, new practices are emerging from Eastern countries. Our research suggests that managers should consider the cultural context when transferring practices or knowledge from one place to another.
Our most recent research examines how consumers from India and the United States differ in their perceptions of sustainability1. Sustainability has emerged as a significant managerial issue, as companies worldwide implement sustainability strategies. How consumers think about sustainability has implications for a myriad of organisational processes, including strategy formulation and deployment, product design and supply chain management. Our work suggests that individual perspectives on sustainability are rooted in cultural orientation. Consequently, sustainability takes on different meanings and subtleties in different contexts. This poses a challenge to managers as they seek to implement or transfer knowledge gained in one context to another.
Four Major Differences
We found four meaningful differences in the mental landscapes of consumers across the two countries2. These include: 1. thoughts, concerns and perceptions about community and social relationships; 2. perceptions about the role of fate; 3. scepticism toward sustainability; and 4. sustainability as a social signal.
First, the informants in our study differed in terms of their community role or sense of belonging to a community and its impact on sustainable consumption. Many Indian informants cited the importance of strong social ties in motivating or controlling behaviour. Moreover, the strength of these immediate ties was often described as a hindrance to sustainable practices. Several informants felt that because Indians typically have ver y strong ties to their immediate family and friends, they do not perceive a need or desire to extend beyond their immediate circle and engage in actions that support the greater good of mankind.
While this finding was not unexpected, India being classified as a collectivistic, interdependent culture, what we initially found to be counterintuitive was that Indians cited their close-knit relationships as a barrier to adopting sustainable consumption patterns, particularly in the realm of social sustainability. This apparent contradiction – that on the one hand Indians appear to be more connected with one another and on the other hand display a lower degree of concern for the greater good of society – can be resolved if we consider the collectivistic nature of Indian society. While Indians generally exhibit a strong desire to belong to the larger social fabric of the countr y, they also act in ways that specifically benefit members of their own in-group. This frequently leads to a competitive relationship across members of different in-groups, such that increased cooperation is obser ved within a particular group so as to advance the relative position of that group over others.
Many people felt that given the historically fragmented nature of Indian culture, people in India maintain an affinity toward their localised identities and that this micro-level identification drives sustainable behaviour. For example, several informants reported buying goods that were either made in their local states or made by people of similar ethnic backgrounds – this was a means of showing support for their community.
India’s unique histor y informs the role of familial ties. Until fairly recently, India was not a consolidated nation; it was a collection of several different ethnically and culturally diverse kingdoms. Only after the British regime were these culturally distinct kingdoms unified as one nation. Nevertheless, a high degree of cultural diversity and cultural independence prevails among the different regions of India. The fragmentation of Indian society into different heterogeneous groups, coupled with the collectivistic nature of Indians, helps explain the strong in-group biases we observed among our Indian informants. Indians appear to foster stronger biases toward their more narrowly constructed in- groups, which seem to be formed at the level of regional (rather than national) similarities and at the level of kinship. As our informants revealed, this resulted in an extreme in-group bias at the level of familial or regional identification, such that Indians appeared to extend a great deal of support to sustainable initiatives if they benefitted members of these in- groups but seemed other wise apathetic to the social needs of others and to environmental degradation that did not directly impact them.
Conversely, Americans tend to be more individualistic, and social connections display a different effect. The Americans that participated in the study do not show the same strong in-group biases that Indians exhibit and are likely to interact with and behave cooperatively toward the goals of even those with whom they do not maintain strong relationships. This high degree of individualism translates to greater geographic mobility and less apprehension in interacting with and helping unknown others, as evidenced by the greater level of social concern among our American informants for even socially distant others.
Second, many Indian informants expressed a sense of fatalism, whereby they let their perceived fate dictate their actions. Many individuals reported feeling that they had little control over events (“things happen on their own”) and that issues of sustainability would be resolved in the course of nature, if that is what fate intended. As a result, they exhibited higher levels of inaction in sustainable behaviour because they felt that fate would ultimately dictate the resolution of problems such as environmental pollution, overcrowding and social inequity.
Rather than actively participate in changing the course of environmental problems or assisting in social issues, many of our Indian informants preferred to leave the resolution of these problems to fate. This fatalistic view of the world seems consistent with the fact that Indians have a relatively low preference for uncertainty avoidance and have a long-term orientation to the world. Given India’s low uncertainty avoidance, we would expect Indians to accept the fact that the world is not perfect. As a result, Indians exhibit a great deal of patience for unexpected events and rely on spontaneous solutions to problems rather than rigid, premeditated solutions. This is reflected in what researchers and practitioners have documented as the “jugaad” effect, that is, the tendency for Indians to use spontaneous problem- solving skills, such as trial-and-error, rather than more dogmatic methods of problem solving. In this sense, Indians tend to deal with problems as they arise, rather than spend too much time anticipating and worr ying about future problems.
Third, the participants differed in the extent to which they exhibited scepticism regarding sustainability. American informants believed that their actions mattered, and as a result, felt some personal responsibility for behaving sustainably. There was only a small minority of individuals who felt that their actions were minuscule relative to the challenge.
Indians, on the other hand, were generally sceptical about the actual impact their actions would have. Indian informants doubted whether organisations that purported to be sustainable were truly behaving in such a way, a view that is perhaps rooted in the cultural evolution of the countr y. Many people described this sense of mistrust as emanating from their day-to-day experiences, where they felt generally suspicious about their interactions in the marketplace. Consequently, they expected more transparency in the process and more proof that sustainable organisations were in fact living up to their promises. In the absence of such evidence, informants appeared doubtful that another person would actually take the steps necessary to make a process sustainable.
Compared to the US, India has a higher degree of inequality and an uneven distribution of power. Americans place an emphasis on the equal distribution of power and control. Societies with greater levels of inequality are often characterised by higher levels of corruption and distrust toward legal and government authorities. This tends to result in a weak understanding of the motives of others and aggravates their sense of perceived unfairness and scepticism regarding motivations. Our findings suggest that Indian informants exhibited such strong scepticism toward sustainable initiatives because they doubted the motives and behaviours of the sponsoring organisations. As a result, we repeatedly heard our informants demanding more transparency and proof of the sustainable efforts that organisations and individuals claimed to be undertaking. Thus, our finding that Indian informants were highly sceptical of the motivations of companies engaging in sustainable production and those that claimed to utilise a sustainable ecology seems consistent.
Finally, perhaps the biggest difference between Indian and American informants was that the former felt people used the idea of sustainability as a means to signal to others that one is a “good” or “responsible” person, without a real concern for the issues. According to many of our Indian informants, engaging in sustainable consumption elevated the perceived social status of others. Informants described social comparison as an important aspect of Indian culture, where individual members showed a high degree of concern for what other members of society thought of them. While few American informants cited sustainability as a source of social signalling, they did not cite conspicuous sustainable purchasing as indicative of desirable personal traits.
While Indians generally exhibit a strong desire to belong to the larger social fabric of the country, they also act in ways that specifically benefit members of their own in- group.
Interestingly, some Indian informants and a minority of American informants agreed that sustainability is a source of emotional dissonance, arousing a sense of guilt. These individuals reported a sense of shame when organisations highlighted the sustainable practices that were utilised to manufacture a product or orchestrate a ser vice. While sustainability itself was not the source of emotional conflict, the dissonance arose when organisations prominently highlighted the sustainability of a product or ser vice that was meant to be used primarily for hedonic gratification, including those that fell under the realm of luxur y offerings. Individuals disclosed that in such situations, where the motivation was pleasure, they would have preferred the sustainable practices to be less conspicuous. In a sense, people felt that sustainability dampened the joy they derived from other wise hedonic experiences.
As sustainability continues to emerge as a significant competitive reality, organisations must understand the thoughts, perspectives and judgements toward sustainability and sustainably marketed goods and ser vices. We demonstrate that these perspectives are in part linked to national culture and context. India and the US share important similarities, but the nations are also marked by significant differences that influence the ways in which Indian and American consumers approach sustainability.
1Sustainability encompasses the environmental, social and economic processes and conditions needed to support a quality of life equal to our own for future generations.2 Please contact the authors for information on the research methodology.