Is 2022 the year when Indian brands will get more serious about sustainability?
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During the pandemic, brands like WOW Skin Science, Diageo and Dettol launched eco-friendly packaging to test the waters

Is 2022 the year when Indian brands will get more serious about sustainability?

During the pandemic, brands like WOW Skin Science, Diageo and Dettol launched eco-friendly packaging to test the waters
  • After the global pandemic, sustainability and health seem to have become important factors for consumers.
  • According to Capgemini’s recent report, consumers engage more readily with brands and retailers that they perceive to be sustainable and genuinely committed to green practices.
  • The report found that 48% of consumers share an emotional connection with products or organizations that demonstrate eco-friendly qualities.
  • As we move forward this year and health concerns and sustainability continue influencing consumer decisions, we speak to brands, research and design agencies about how brands can integrate sustainability into their core values and move beyond mere lip-service.
It might be a new year but the world continues to grapple with familiar challenges and threats: we are on the verge of entering the third wave of COVID-19, the country’s capital, New Delhi is currently facing alarmingly high levels of indoor air pollution and Uttarakhand's forest fires emitted nearly 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in the past one month, a record since 2003 (CAMS report). So 2022 will clearly be a busy year for brands as consumers get more serious about climate change and expect brands to increase their focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature.

While businesses exist to make money, Manish Chowdhary, Co-CEO, Body Cupid Pvt Limited says that there are two ways to do that. He explained, “One is sustainable, by keeping other living and non-living things in mind. The other one is inspired by greed. So no matter how small a brand’s effort may be, it has to be aligned with sustainability if the brand wants to continue in the long run. Brands exist for consumers and it is important that we listen to what they want.”

From driving workforce diversity to taking a stand on climate change, there’s a definite change that has taken place in consumer expectations. In the last few years, sustainability has become one of the biggest decision-making factors for consumers, and more so after the pandemic. They have realised that mother earth has suffered enough.

In this digital world, consumers are demanding more transparency and are quick to call out greenwashing. They are expecting to see concrete actions. And as Chowdhary said, it has become imperative for brands to listen to what consumers want because they exist to serve consumers.

Today’s consumers are not only pivoting towards more sustainable products but are also willing to pay a premium for them. Gen Z and Millennials lead all other age groups in this respect. When shopping for groceries, 72% of Gen Z and 66% of Millennials say they are willing to pay more for organic foods and in fact, did so the last time they were grocery shopping, compared to 56% of Boomers, found Capgemini. Its recent report said that 80% of consumers want to contribute to the fight to save the planet for future generations.

And it is not just a phase. 70% of consumers agreed that post-pandemic, they will be more careful in terms of maintaining and protecting their personal health. Covid has only reminded us that there is a long way to go on sustainability.

On how the pandemic has altered consumer behaviour, Lulu Raghavan, Managing Director, Landor and Fitch said, “The pandemic has fundamentally shifted consumer behaviour. An IBM study shows that 93% of consumers have changed their views on sustainability after the pandemic. This is totally understandable. The horrid virus which came out of nowhere has ravaged lives, ruined livelihoods. The only silver lining is that it has woken us up to the paramount importance of our own health and wellbeing and that of our Mother Earth. Sustainability is now a definitive transformative force that will upend existing industries and create new ones. If digital transformation was the buzzword in corporate boardrooms, ECG will take centre stage in the coming decade.”

But what exactly is a sustainable brand? Ashwini Deshpande, Co-Founder and Director, Elephant Design defines it as, “A brand that values ethical sourcing and supply chains, is inclusive, and follows environment-friendly processes and materials while staying viable for its stakeholders is qualified to be labelled as a sustainable brand.”

Kartik Johari, VP, Marketing & Commerce, Nobel Hygiene believes that in the coming months, people will start to question what is sustainable and what is not along with how we can continue to reduce our carbon footprint across all aspects of our lives.

He said, “Consumers at the end of it are people and they expect what is good. The ‘brand promise’ is essential to them. Now, alongside they are also making space for the environment due to excellent work by activists and journalists around the world. You will remember, for example, that riveting photo of a straw stuck in a turtle's nose. How many millions of turtles have we lost to this? Yet it took just that one photo to break through the global psyche. Now straws are the Number One environmental enemy. But this does not mean the onus should be entirely on people to choose better! Companies have to improve their offering. And that is correct for consumers to expect. Moreover, important to note, there are some 50 or 60 companies in the world, which are responsible for majority of emissions. Strong regulations on them can solve what collectively 500 million people may have to do. But who’s going to bell the cat? As Mr Musk rightly has been saying that, give the solar industry the same amount of subsidies, for a year, that you give to oil and gas, and see the amount of transformative change it brings! The onus cannot be on that one little end consumer and their war to save their environment.”

During the pandemic, brands like WOW Skin Science, Diageo and Dettol launched eco-friendly packaging to test the waters, indicating that more brands in India have started reevaluating their packaging strategy to put the environment first. Big FMCG companies such as Marico, HUL, Nestle India, Future Consumer, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-co, Parle Agro also announced in 2020 that they will move to 100% recyclable packaging by 2025 helping towards a sustainable future.

Joining the bandwagon, the Indian Government has also started its efforts towards reducing our country’s carbon footprint. Currently, India is the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after the US and China. According to an Assocham and PwC report, landfills are brimming with so much urban waste that by 2050, India is reportedly going to need a landfill that's the size of its capital, New Delhi. And consumers aren’t ignoring these horrifying numbers anymore.

Elysha Young, Trends Manager, Mintel APAC said, "India’s Prime Minister has pledged it will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, backed by aggressive 2030 targets. By laying the groundwork in the form of policies, India is signaling that it is open and willing to support innovation around sustainability, and indeed that carbon-emitting industries will no longer be tolerated. This presents an opportunity for global companies looking to tap into India's vast population but also issues a challenge to foreign and domestic companies to ensure they are cutting emissions throughout their value chain. It's in India's self-interest to stem global warming, with the nation of 1.3 billion people being one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The nature of the short-term targets means that action will need to be taken immediately, which will see a strong focus on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, as well as the batteries needed to store such energy. Companies would do well to look at the emissions within their own value chains and determine where cuts can be made. Communicating these to consumers will help them to make choices that align with the national strategy; the opportunity exists to ensure consumers feel like they're also doing their bit."

In 2022, brands that snooze will definitely lose

More and more consumers are becoming aware of their choices and realising that whether it is a worn-out piece of mask they decide to throw or a sanitary napkin or even as simple as a plain t-shirt, never really goes ‘away.’ It all ends up in a landfill. Human activities are clearly harming the global environment and brands have no choice but to migrate to sustainable solutions and work towards building a circular economy.

So, in 2022, if brands don’t switch, they lose consumers, investors, and all stakeholders.

Chowdhary said, “At the industry level, there is nothing without sustainability. The consumers of today are conscious and aware. They know the choices they are making. So if companies & brands do not opt for sustainable practices, eventually the smart consumers are going to make a switch. We can only expect the awareness to grow and actions to increase, especially with the challenges that our planet is facing today.”

Anjali Malthankar, National Strategy Director, Tonic Worldwide sees sustainability as one of the big topics in 2022 – right from fashion, green products, green living to electric vehicles, every category will be touched by sustainability filter.

She said, “If the brands have already not made sustainability part of their commitment in any form yet, it’s high time they join the eco-wakening movement. Consumers are already looking for some form of reassurance or the other from brands in terms of conscious behaviour, as consumers are at different stages of adoption – it is a mix of curious, concerned, and advocates. At the very least, they are looking to not feel guilty about consuming the brand. Conscious living, mindful living, Green living, purposeful living are all the buzz words in communications today. For brands it is inevitable to have sustainability as a larger goal.”

It is not just the environment and consumers who benefit from eco-friendly practices, businesses with low carbon footprints are more likely to have a better brand image and can easily woo consumers.

Deep Bajaj, CEO & Co-Founder, Sirona Hygiene said, “Companies are realizing that being conscious of their environmental impact can benefit them in every manner possible. Consumers desire sustainability owing to the ailing earth. Companies that work to become more environmentally responsible, not only contribute to a better future, but also establish a progressive brand image, happier employees, and a loyal client base. Consumers are real people who are affected by real environmental issues on a daily basis. They are aware that it is no longer limited to textbooks and that industrial activities have a direct impact on their daily lives. As a result, what goes into the making of a product and what goes inside it is extremely important to them. Other than environmental consciousness, they expect transparency from brands.”

While brands in India have already started taking baby steps towards converting their business into a sustainable choice for consumers, we will get to witness more demonstrable actions in 2022. And those who fail to prioritise mother earth, will have to face consumers’ wrath.

Deshpande said, “The emerging consumer base of millennials & Gen Z is not a forgiving lot when it comes to ethics or ecology being compromised by a brand. But others are not quite as aware and may base their decision only on factors like price or convenience above sustainability.

There is no choice. It is a survival mandate for a brand to become sustainable. Otherwise, we will see every resource being depleted in the next few decades.”

Kantar BrandZ data shows that brands with weak purpose grow 70% but brands with strong purpose grow 175%. At the same time, India is still a price-sensitive country and consumers stick to the convenience of buying what you are used to.

So, on how brands can move beyond mere lip-service and greenwashing this year, Raghvan suggested, “Use innovation to develop products developed against that purpose. Embrace design thinking across the board. Embed a new mindset deeply in the culture and transform from within. Communicate and evangelise with consumers."

In 2022, experts are confident that brands will embrace sustainability that will benefit people, planet and profit.