How ready is India to launch permanent eco-friendly packaging and become a plastic free country?
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Can India become a 100% eco-friendly country anytime soon? Here's what experts have to say

How ready is India to launch permanent eco-friendly packaging and become a plastic free country?

Can India become a 100% eco-friendly country anytime soon? Here's what experts have to say
  • In the last few years, we have seen many brands become more environment-friendly. There has been an increasing focus on sustainability.
  • Globally, brands like Diageo, Unilever Limited have started reevaluating their packaging to put the environment first.
  • However, so far, even limited-edition packaging from big brands this Diwali is all either plastic-based or made for one-time-use.
  • We speak to experts to find out if brands are making sustainability a priority in their business plans, infrastructure gap that India needs to fill in to become sustainable and when can we expect to see big Indian brands becoming 100% environment-friendly.
For Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies and beauty brands, packaging is the final point of contact with customers. Having an unforgettable packaging design and eco-friendly packaging in today’s environment can help in communicating a disruptive image and stand out in the cluttered, competitive shelves.

In the last few years, we have seen many brands become more environment-friendly and increase their focus on sustainability. Due to the lockdown and increased in-home consumption, consumers became more environmentally-conscious as they saw a higher than normal packaging in their own home trash that cannot be reused or recycled. Consumers, especially Millennials and GenZ, want companies to take sustainability and greater purpose more seriously and take action towards the betterment of our country. They are even willing to shell out more money or switch to a smaller brand.

According to Capgemini’s latest research study on sustainability and changing consumer behaviour, 79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact. 53% of consumers and 57% in the 18-24 age group have switched to lesser known brands because they were sustainable. More than half of the consumers (52%) say that they share an emotional connection with products or organisations that they perceive as sustainable.

Moreover, COVID-19 has increased consumer awareness and commitment to buying sustainably: 67% of consumers said that they will be more cautious about the scarcity of natural resources due to the COVID-19 crisis, and 65% said that they will be more mindful about the impact of their overall consumption in the “new normal”.

This reinforces the need for big companies to increase their commitments towards responsible business practices and migrate to sustainable solutions to contribute to a circular economy.

As a result, during the pandemic, brands like Diageo and Dettol launched limited edition eco-friendly packaging to test the waters indicating that more brands in India have started reevaluating their packaging strategy to put the environment first. HUL also brought Unilever’s ‘Love Beauty and Planet’ range of skincare products to India after observing an increasing demand for sustainable products.

According to media reports, companies such as Marico, Bacardi, ASICS, HUL, Nestle India, Future Consumer, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-co, Parle Agro will move to 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 helping towards a sustainable future.

On the other hand, Diwali is also that time of the year when brands pour in extra money to launch limited-edition festive packaging. From Kurkure to Mondelez, all packaging from big companies is either plastic-based or one-time-use this year.

So we reached out to experts to find out if companies are investing in launching eco-friendly packaging on a larger scale, what are some of the hurdles that are stopping brands from launching permanent eco-friendly packaging today and when can we expect to see India a plastic-free country.

Infrastructure aid

Talking about resources the country needs to inch closer towards circular economy, Arnab Ray, Creative Director, Landor said, “I think resources can be created if the mindset is there. Our thinking for plastic-free/recyclable products is normally limited to a small range of products, sometimes boutique and not something associated with mass brands. India is a large country, so it also means the Government playing a large role along with corporates. According to reports, FMCG companies are aiming to go for 100% recyclable plastic packaging by 2025 in accordance to the Government’s initiatives on plastic waste management. Also, in my view, change in perspective and innovation can be answers to creating more resources on a large scale basis. One of the largest sources of plastic waste, Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles used for beverage products, are being re-purposed to make apparels, footwear, and furniture by many companies. Intelligent use of recyclable material can ensure a more sustained effort towards creating products that are good for the planet.”

Radha Ghai, Creative Director & Senior Partner, Alok Nanda & Company, said that India has enough resources for small-scale production but not for large-scale yet.

She said, “We do have the resources and lots of new materials, which are environment friendly, that are being explored but not at a large scale level yet. Plastic free/recyclable solutions are being explored at smaller scale levels especially in cities where people are becoming more aware of being sensitive to the environment and are willing to pay extra for these solutions. We have the technology to produce recyclable packaging, but again not at a large-scale level yet, as in India we don’t have the infrastructure to produce for large-scale products. Cost of materials and technology is expensive unlike China, which has been the biggest market till now. The government has to support the manufacturers big time to create these solutions.”

Ashwini Deshpande, Co-founder and Director, Elephant Design pointed out that we need to take a holistic view here and look at the entire packaging process.

Deshpande said, “Going plastic-free is a significant and high-impact step, but we must look at all the emerging concerns like packaging materials, printing inks, distribution logistics, consumption, and recycling. Each of these decisions impacts the planet. Going plastic-free is not the end of responsibility. Nor is believing the packaging will be recycled if we put a logo on it. Sustainability is a mindset. Any change needs to start with the intent that can then convert to policy. So, this is not about having enough resources or appropriate technology. The question is whether companies selling products in plastic packaging in India (whether MNCs or Indian) have enough genuineness to move towards replacing existing practices, processes & materials with sustainable ones.”

Speaking about how change will only come if clients change their mindset, Deshpande added, “If there is a strong intent, they will be able to spend resources on research, innovation, and integration to meet the objectives. If replacing materials seems like a long shot, smaller measures like reducing packaging sizes to appropriate dimensions, reducing number of inks or area of ink coverage to reduce negative impact can also prove effective first steps. Recovering solvents from ink usage, greener fuels for transporting goods, incentivizing consumers for recycling would be some of the other ways to become more sustainable.”

Becoming a part of usual packaging process

Designers are constantly in search of materials that provide long-term hygiene efficacy, materials or processes that do least harm to the ecology. The topic of sustainability has also become a part of boardroom conversations between agency and client.

“Interestingly, this subject is becoming a large part of the many conversations we have with our existing and prospective clients. From a leading Art and Stationery brand to big FMCG clients to even our clients in the Alcohol industry, environment-friendly packaging is definitely a topic of discussion, and we constantly see opportunities collaboratively with our client partners to see where discussions can turn to reality. Globally, Landor & Fitch have launched a joint initiative called The Good Squad, which is a collaborative effort of all the offices in the area of sustainability, where we research, share knowledge and also map out future prospects for all categories over and above our sharp focus on FMCG. So, in my view, the topic is no longer in the back burner but very much need of the hour. The pandemic did put the subject to the background a bit but also made us realise how important protecting the earth and its environment is for a better and more sustainable future,” said Ray.

Deshpande, on the other hand, shared with us that conversation on eco-friendly packaging is still not a priority.

She said, “Conversations about environment-friendly materials are increasing. Most MNCs also have sustainability experts involved in the packaging design process. But honestly, it is far from becoming a priority. Marketers, designers, print converters, logistics partners, retailers, consumers, and recycling agencies must come together to form the policy and develop practices to reach the common goals. It is a challenge now because all these stakeholders are not on the same platform yet. But I see that as the only way forward.”

While clients do consider environmental-friendly options, they are still not willing to loosen their purse strings.

Ghai said, “When we do get packaging briefs and when we start giving packaging solutions eco-friendly options are appreciated for sure. The environmental concern is there for sure but costs become a big hurdle for clients to produce materials that are eco friendly. Hence, limited edition products do get launched for a small set of audience, but for a larger scale demand the clients are forced to continue with more cost effective options.”

Can India become a 100% eco-friendly country anytime soon?

According to Bain & Company, 65% of global consumers are ready to shell out more for brands which use sustainable products and nine in every ten customers are also ready to switch to eco-friendly brands if price and quality were equal. While consumers are willing to shell out more money for eco-friendly products, the audience is still very small and sustainable market is still at its nascent stage in India.

Speaking about some of the hurdles that are stopping India from becoming eco-friendly at a larger scale, Ghai said, “Unfortunately, there’s still a large audience that doesn’t really pay much attention to these issues. Sensitivity to the environment is there but still not very active in their head. General perception is that if it is plastic free it will not be durable or if it's organic it must be expensive. Also, other products are readily available at shops nearby or at a supermarket, so ease of picking up takes preference over specially going to a shop or to look out for eco friendly products online. Though a few brands are moving towards recyclable materials that are still not 100% eco friendly, it is going to take time.”

Ray thinks it is challenging but possible.

He said, “India is a large country, hence the sheer volume of products can make moving to a 100% environment-friendly market a daunting task, but not really an impossible one. Unilever, globally has reduced one-third of its packaging waste. If the government and the big companies work hand-in-glove to mobilise and fast-track the initiative, then change is certainly possible. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the problem and are switching to eco-friendly alternatives. But again, these numbers are small, so it becomes imperative for the large companies along with the government, to raise awareness and help sustainable living become more achievable and a reality.”

Deshpande opines it is a far-fetched idea but right support from the government and brands can make it happen.

“While 100% is too idealistic, it will happen sooner than we all imagine if the government proactively makes it mandatory. On their own, very few Indian brands would take the steps. Also, why should the consumers bear the costs alone? The onus is also on the corporates. They cannot hope to maintain their bottom-line and recover the entire expense of saving the planet out of their consumers,” said she.