True Cost

True Cost Neha Mundhra1

A week back while I sat in the car waiting for my father, outside the branch of a commercial bank, I noticed a young man walking on the pavement. He was drinking soda from a green, plastic bottle that he thoughtlessly chucked at the corner of the pavement after chugging the soda in a hurry. I watched the urgency in his movement. As hurriedly as he chugged the soda and chucked the bottle, he turned to a street vendor minding mobile phone covers displayed colourfully on a wooden cart.

The young man and the vendor exchanged words continuously while the man picked and examined various mobile covers. He finally chose one, paid the vendor, and left. Leaving no trace of his presence except for the chucked bottle.

Segue into our homes; what do we see? Waste bins or trash cans (earlier called, waste-paper-basketsintentionally highlighted) filled with pieces and strips of plastic packaging, chocolate wrappers, and potato chip packets; replace these with protein bars and trail mix packs of the body conscious. Regardless of the contents or the branding, the packaging is the same: plastic and aluminium, with bits of paper included, chucked casually in the bin.

The corner of the pavement and the corner of our homes are different forms of architecture, and their function and design make them visually distinct, but they both hold trash—a trace of our presence.

Consumerism, a movement that began in the 1950s, with an increase in industrial production and an improvement in chemical compounds that nature cannot breakdown, made it easier for us to package, transport, and store, and therefore to consume with urgency and without pause or thought.

If we do decide to pause and are pushed not by the urgency of the young man (the urgency latent in consumerism), we may be forced to ask what is the true cost of the soda bottle, the mobile cover, or of our chocolates and protein bars?

It’s a calculation you and I need to make, because equity traders, investment bankers, corporations, brands, and our educational institutions aka advertising agencies and digital media platforms are not going to do it for us.

To calculate true cost, we must include the following cost items

  1. Raw materials or ingredients used
    Are they renewable or non-renewable, local or imported.
  2. Location or origin of these materials and ingredients
    If it’s native to your region then it’s more nutritious than acai berries and more sustainable than bamboo.
  3. Estimated amount of water used to grow, farm, or produce
    When you’re uncertain if rainwater has been used, consider water as a non-renewable resource in your calculation.
  4. Cost of extracting non-renewable fossil fuel
    Fracking injects liquid into the ground at high pressure to force open fissures and extract oil and natural gas. It has an undesirable impact on the seismic movement below, the activity that causes earthquakes.
  5. Place of manufacturing or making
    Does it need to be made in Italy or in China? Aren’t we skilled enough to create beautiful design and utility?
  6. Distance travelled to reach us
    The shorter the distance the better.
  7. Consumption trend to assess if it’s a high demand product
    The higher the demand the wider the distribution, and more the carbon footprint. Beware it’s a trend.
  8. The influence of advertising on our free will
    A mind that gives up agency is a deprived mind; a slave to propaganda.
  9. Impact of packaging on the environment
    Compostable, biodegradable, or long-life (immortal): Do we need packaging that lives longer than us?
  10. Livelihood and wages of farmers, miners, workers, makers, artisans, machine operators
    Equal dignity. Equal Pay – Hold brands responsible to ensure they pay everyone in the value chain equally, because the computer engineer cannot do the work of the delivery boy, and both are essential for fulfilment.
  11. Price of contentment and our involuntary submission to greed
    Economics governs everything, then why leave out our sanity? If contentment is indeed priceless then it must be placed at the very top of the true cost list. Will that change the cost of the things we buy?

I recall the days when I went to Banana Republic and Gap, before we had Mango, Zara, and H&M arrive in India. I was thrilled to find a bargain on the sales rack, and even more pleased that I chose clothes only made of natural fibre in Bangladesh or India.

It never occurred to me to calculate the true cost of these clothes. Ten or Fifteen US Dollars felt like a great deal. How far I have come since those days, and today this list of eleven does figure in my calculations. I consume now with less urgency and with a lot more contentment.

Choose a natural resource that you care deeply about and get started. I began with water and the implications of our production and consumption cycle on ground water resources. 

Neha Mundhra is a content writer and storyteller, and the author and publisher of Kyo and Obi, an illustrated storybook that is hand stitched by differently-abled people, and printed on recycled and sun-dried cotton paper, free of wood pulp. She writes narrative essays and has developed a series of three stories that are an exploration of facts and fiction. These stories aim to bring forth to children real world issues while providing a moral compass, as well as highlighting more diverse realities. You can read her writing on her blog:



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