Can advertising help to turn India green?

As Indians become increasingly consumerist, the country’s advertising industry has a vital role to play.

Go down the escalator of Marks & Spencer at Bond Street and large green lettering promises you tea and coffee that is Fairtrade and ethically sourced, seafood from sustainable sources and meat from farms where animal welfare is para­mount. Walk down the stairwell of Marks & Spencer in Ansal Plaza, a mall in New Delhi, and you’ll be met by giant images of models clutching shopping bags or standing backstage at a fashion show.

M&S is not alone in rolling out communication in India that seems at odds with its British marketing. Companies that vaunt their eco-creden­tials in the west don’t even mention them there. The Indian market, many clients and agencies argue, is insufficiently sophisticated for eco-branding and products. But in a country with a deep-rooted culture of recycling, and a growing environmental movement, are advertisers missing a trick? And can the Indian advertising industry play a role in stimulating an appetite for green goods?

There is abundant evidence of the green pound’s strength. According to the Co-operative Bank, so-called “ethical spending” has grown in the UK by 81% since 2002. The vast majority of Britons – 83% – consider a company’s green reputation when we shop, and almost half say that a company’s environmental record is the decisive factor when they buy. This consumer desire to do – and buy – the right thing translates into cash, and this has convinced numerous, and often unlikely, companies to change communication tack. Indeed, airlines, energy companies and car-makers have been some of the fastest to rebrand, sometimes with surreal results: the world’s largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus 380’s launch campaign bore the strapline ‘a more natural way to fly’, showing ants carrying plane-shaped leaves. Meanwhile, the appearance of eon-uk – which is pressing for Kingsnorth’s develo­pment as a coal power station – on the shortlist for November’s British Green Awards prompted Private Eye, with customary restraint, to label the event “absurd self-congratulatory green tosh”.

While it is true that the Advertising Standards Authority has found some agencies guilty of ‘green-washing’, ie, exaggerating a company’s environmental credentials, the British marketing industry has nonetheless played a crucial role in greening UK consumer habits. In 2006/7 £17m was spent on advertising containing the words ‘co2’, ‘carbon’, ‘environ­mental’, ‘emissions’ or ‘recycle’ – 40 times more than in 2003, according to Admap.

But there are limits to how much marketing can actually do: can agencies persuade clients and consumers to go green? In India, which has one-sixth of the world’s population and has its fourth largest greenhouse-gas emissions, such questions are crucial.

In the first 10 years of the boom that followed India’s economic liberalisation, consump­tion levels exploded. The average Indian family’s nominal income doubled: so too did India’s carbon emissions.

As the population increases and people get richer, emissions levels are sure to soar.

While the green pound’s very strength has made it vulnerable to exploitation, the green rupee is still a chimera. There are almost no commercial brands in India using ethical messages. Even responsible brands don’t flaunt their ethics in their communication. FabIndia, for example, whose whole founding purpose was to connect India’s artisans to wider markets and which pioneered a community-owned business model (Bill Clinton described it as a “very big deal”), is on the Harvard Business School curriculum as an example of corporate social innovation. As a shopper in any one of its 97 stores, you wouldn’t know it. In the UK­ this company would shout its ethical creden­tials from the rooftops; in India it keeps shtum.

Nokia is one of a handful of brands vying for supremacy in India’s booming telecoms market: India gains 10 million new mobile subscribers every month. In 2003, Nokia was shifting 8,000 units of one of its handsets daily. (Its London office, interestingly, also won the Grand Prix at the afore­mentioned Green Awards.) Although this is arguably one of the most heated fields of marketing communication in India today, the company’s India vice president D Shivakumar argues that India’s market is not yet competitive enough for brands to need to differentiate themselves by playing the green card: Indian consumers decide which brands to buy, he says, on the basis of trust and price. A company’s environmental record is not yet a component of the brand-consumer compact. The mobile phone company’s research shows that middle-class, urban Indians are familiar with environmental debates, but feel no urgency to make lifestyle and consumer choices on the basis of sustainability. Rural Indians’ first-hand experience of climate change makes them natural environ-ment­­alists, but this demographic is often too preoccupied with staying alive to prioritise ethical consumer behaviour over price considerations.

Until the existence of a demonstrable market for environmental products is proven, brands are unlikely to take the plunge into voluntarily creating green products. Some suggest the solution is to go green by stealth: foster a market for environmental products using an efficiency or health message. The chairman of Leo Burnett India, Arvind Sharma, says: “Altruism drives some, for a while, but self interest drives most, forever.” Srinivasan Raman of market research company Hansa ascribes the growth in India’s nascent organic food market to keen perceptions of its health rather than environ-mental benefits, and points out that environmental issues only seem to impact Indian voting prefer­ences when they get personal: waste disposal, recycling, sewage.

But while the stealth approach may produce isolated green consumer decisions, it does not build the level of consumer demand that would see brands rush a raft of green product options to market. Can advertising agencies, pace the delicate relation­ship that exists between agency and client on even the longest-held accounts, convince brands that by building ecological concerns into their brand strategy early they will steal a march on their compe­tition? Ogilvy’s global sustainable communications practice, OgilvyEarth was established to “shrink business’ footprint on the planet while growing its profit­ability”. It launched in India in October 2008. Ogilvy India’s national chairman and chief creative officer Piyush Pandey says, “Green communication will have to happen in India. It’s marketers’ social respon­sibility.” He says o&m will be proactive in initiating “the sustain­ability conversation” with clients.

But for Indian consumer guru Rama Bijapurkar, Indians have been having that “sustainability conver­sation” for centuries. She dismisses the notion that it is necessary to stimulate markets for sustainable goods, stating that Indians already have a deep- rooted culture of thrift and reuse. “The last thing we Indians voluntarily threw out was the British,” she says. Anyone who’s lived in an Indian city will be used to cries of the recycling wallah as he wobbles down the street on a bike laden with newspapers. Most people buy loose tea, rice, and flour from the grocer. Vegetables are sold from barrows or stalls without packaging. In Bijapurkar’s words, “this is simply value engineering”. Packaging is expensive. Most Indians are very poor. They cannot afford anything that adds price to the product.

But with the rise of the new consumerism in India, all this is changing. Coke is no longer sold in glass bottles; plastic bags replace the jute ones, water is increasingly served in small plastic bottles instead of glasses. Supermarkets with highly packaged food are springing up all over the country. Multi­nationals are trying to change the consumption habits of the next generation of Indians. Bijapurkar highlights what she calls the ethical ‘flexibility’ of global brands. In her words, “they force more packaging on us and then talk about Kyoto in international meetings”. She points out that in the west companies are trying to reduce packaging, to use cloth instead of plastic bags, to conserve and reuse –­­­­­­­­­­ whereas in India, aggressive advertising is quickly eroding India’s low pack­aging thrift consumption culture. The Financial Times in December carried a front page story charting the rise of Britain’s new “frugal consumer”: Asda and Tesco had noted that consump­tion had radically shifted as a result not just of environ­mental issues, but also of the recession. “We are moving into an area of the frivolous being unaccept­able and the frugal being cool,” Asda ceo Andy Bond was quoted as saying. Sales of bottled water and packaged smoothies have plunged “as people opt to drink from the tap and eat fruit,” the report continued. Bijapurkar has seen the writing on the wall. “We are already in heaven,” she says, “why force us to hell so we have to climb to get to heaven again.”

Step foot in Unpackaged, a shop in London which was shortlisted for The Observer’s 2008 Ethical Awards, and you’ll see her point. “Shop like your granny used to,” the headlines shouted when it opened in 2006. Here, in a store full of sacks of loose tea, rice and flour, consumers fill their own containers with groceries. In the UK, the concerned middle classes have come full circle back to the sack-filled local store, just as Indians are being aggressively encouraged to leave it behind. Bijapurkar wants India to leapfrog the west by missing out the phase of wasteful consumption altogether. “We need ‘back-to-the-future’ marketing,” she says, marketing that adds status to traditional eco-friendly behaviour. “It is happening in some places,” she notes, pointing to the small cloth bags that upmarket Indian clothes stores now use.  “But the man on the street needs to be proud of the jute bag over his shoulder, rather than ashamed of it.”

India could not only leapfrog the west’s consumption habits, they could also avoid some of the pitfalls of our environmental movement too. The whole notion that we can buy our way out of environmental catastrophe is coming under fire in the UK. Perhaps eco-consumption has taken centre stage for too long. Critics argue that encouraging people to take ‘small, painless steps’, such as buying an eco-friendly TV or driving a Prius, is nonetheless encouraging them to keep consuming. Even eco-products are still ‘things’ that take energy to make, transport, sell and (sometimes) dispose of. Quite simply, we have to get used to buying less; to reusing and recycling. The small-painless-steps approach may sometimes actually discourage people from taking bigger actions to pressure government to make the radical changes necessary to avoid ‘Thermaggedon’: if you turn your tv off standby today, are you really likely to march on parliament tomorrow?

The environmental movement in Britain has just come under fire for encouraging supporters to take the small consumer steps over the bigger regulatory ones that would make a real difference. jwt India’s national creative director, Agnello Dias, brings this point back to India: convincing a nation of 1.1 billion, he argues, will be slow and, ultimately, government policy will have to underpin eco-consumerism.

Whether green consumerism or political activism is the answer, the winds of change seem to be blowing in India. The newly formed Indian Youth Climate Movement has seen its membership rocket from three to 200,000 in its first nine months of operation. In December 2008, Mumbai was set to host an Indian Live Earth event, featuring Bollywood and rock royalty Aishwarya Rai, Amitabah Bachan, Bon Jovi, and Roger Walters, only to have it cancelled at the last minute because of the terrorist attacks. India Fashion Week in March 2008 saw an explosion of eco fashion from established designers. Meanwhile, trendspotter and Fashion Professor, Kaustav Sengupta predicts that ‘eco-cool’ will be of growing importance to young consumers. Popular lifestyle magazine, Verve, reports that “eco-fashion (is) the hottest topic in fashiondom”, and even wedding organisers are reporting demand for eco-friendly events. Admittedly these are small pockets of change in an enormous society, but in a country where an advertising strapline – ‘India’s shining’ – brought down the last government when its over-optimistic rhetoric failed to chime with real lives, perhaps Indian adland can save the world.


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