There is something sensible and reassuring about the word “organic”. But that’s not the only reason why it has become one of the front-runners in India’s urban vocabulary. The green movement hooks a lot of attention worldwide for reasons both right and wrong, but here, organic is a double-edged weapon. It symbolizes economic progress, and a developed and privileged society. On the other hand, it’s produced by poor farmers—the foot soldiers of the organic movement—who suffer from food scarcity themselves. Uniquely linking yet discriminating rural from elite India, the organic movement is far more diverse than its proclaimed benefits of qualitative food and environmental responsibility that stare at us from fancily packaged items.
Organic products in the food, clothing and beauty segments are now flooding urban markets. From cafés that include organic meals to stores stocking organic options for regular dal, rice, pasta, cereal and pickle, linen and candles, wood-free paper or eco-friendly bags that scorn the reign of plastic and polyester, we are surrounded by ostensibly “responsible” products.
But while a section of this growing industry is certified organic and will indeed alter our ecological footprint in the long run, it would be foolhardy, warn experts, to assume all of it as authentic. “Yes, there is a massive green wash and a lot of pseudo green in the market, not just in India but across the world. After all, global corporations that brought us genetically modified organisms (GMOs), genetic pollution, climate change and oil spills tried to appropriate the green economy concept and it took a movement to stop it,” says environmental activist Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, an NGO that promotes biodiversity, farmer rights and organic farming.
Even the optimists are concerned. “It is shocking the way companies blatantly call themselves organic even when they are often only partly organic and sometimes not even healthy. We must understand the difference between an organic mindset and cashing in on organic as a business,” says Kavita Mukhi, eco-nutritionist and initiator of Mumbai’s Farmers’ Market.
Debates about authenticity, however, haven’t stunted the growth of the organic market. According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda), India produced around 3.88 million metric tonnes of certified organic products in 2010-11, including foodstuff, herbal medicines, organic cotton fibre, garments, cosmetics and bodycare products. Organic exports in the same year fetched $157.22 million (almost Rs.880 crore), registering 33% growth over the previous year. Indian organic products are exported mainly to the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, South Africa and West Asia.
Back home, numerous options in organic food have made it a busy retail segment. There are brands like Navdanya, Fabindia Organics, Organic India, Khadi, Whole Foods, Nourish Organics, The Altitude Store, 24-Letter Mantra, Navadarshanam and Conscious Food, to name just some. Most retail from metros either through “shop in shop” models or independently, clearly aiming at a certain class.
Not every product of these brands is organic but the ones that are, carry the label. Brands like Nourish Organics and The Altitude Store, for instance, make the distinction clear on their websites. Ayesha Grewal, the founder and lead shareholder of The Altitude Store, says 60-70% of the store’s business is now generated online, a big change from when they started a few years back. “I am an organic farmer, I question and double-check all the way,” says Grewal, who also caters organic meals for special events and sets up a café every Sunday at Delhi’s organic farmers’ market in Jor Bagh.
For consumers, it’s a perplexing, if attractive pursuit. Unsubstantiated health benefits stand out as the goal for most. “According to our studies on food consumption and habits, the mass category, especially in non-metro and small towns, is either not aware or if slightly aware, not swayed by the value proposition of this organic story. The majority swear by healthy food,” says Anubha Kakroo, director, design and cultural insights of Futurebrands, a marketing and branding consultancy. “In certain urban classes there is an increasing awareness, even a desire to use organic, but most find the pricing prohibitive. Also, there are issues of trust, whether the promised organic is genuinely so.”
Noida-based radiologist Arti Chaturvedi calls herself a sceptical believer. “Grass-roots organics makes sense when you have a one-to-one communication with growers. But when big names (and big money) enter the arena, the issues seem to get mixed up. Big chains seem to be going the corporate way—the profit distribution is pyramidal, the poor cultivator gets the least. Further, when organic becomes fashionable, it’s even more dubious whether one is actually getting the real stuff,” she says.
Many consumers admit that they veer towards prettily packaged and invitingly named products (who can find fault with apricot and ginger bars, red saffron cleansers, sea buckthorn packs, white soft cotton bedspreads, lavender and basil soaps) that smell like heaven, taste good, offer a tactile experience and promise a pesticide-free life.
Theatre person Vivek Mansukhani, also the director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme, argues in favour of consumer awareness. He is willing to pay 25-50% more for organic products and even go to special stores to buy them, but only for health benefits. “I would definitely look for certification, the reputation, veracity and history of the company, what it says about how it accesses and markets its products,” he explains.
That’s precisely how Tattva Kitchen, a restaurant and lunch-delivery outlet in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village which sources vegetables from organic farmers or retailers and is run by Anuradha Madhusudhanan, assesses the interest of its clients. Here, the oldest customer is an 86-year-old lady and the youngest, about 14. Ninety per cent of its clients are aware of the benefits of organic eating and many like to meet the proprietors before opting for a packed organic lunch to get a sense of how things are run. The three-course lunch is priced at Rs.7,000 per month while an all-day arrangement (with morning-evening snacks and a protein drink) costs Rs.12,000 per month.
The Deli at Lodi—The Garden Restaurant sources produce such as mustard, tomatoes, lemons, mangoes and melons from Sewara Hospitality managing director Inderpal Singh Kochhar’s own farms at Chhatarpur and Noida in the National Capital Region.
Genuine and certified organic products do cost 25-50% more than conventional ones and if you are buying a foreign brand, you could be paying double the cost. But the smooth marketing glossary that surrounds most such products confuses consumers: Organic, green, natural, herbal, Ayurvedic, eco-friendly, biodiverse, botanical, ethical and sustainable are not interchangeable concepts (see “Same difference?”).
The “natural” skincare segment is even more crowded. Take brands like Lotus Herbals and Himalaya, at the lower end of the pricing spectrum. The former calls itself a “natural cosmetics company”, the latter claims “100 per cent natural additives”. Others higher up in the hierarchy are Biotique (100% botanical extracts), Aroma Magic, Shahnaz Husain, Neemrana or premium brands like Kama Ayurveda and Forest Essentials (US beauty giant Estée Lauder has a minority stake in the last). There is also a third level—imported “natural” products like the French L’Occitane en Provence, more expensive than Indian products.
Besides these, there are numerous uncertified brands, like slew of “herbal” hair oils, even “natural” mosquito repellent creams. Aaranyaa, for instance, has a range of natural products and uses Vedic Natural Therapy as its tag line. “More than certification for an organic or natural product, which is a long and expensive process, I believe in being answerable to our customers,” says Nagendra Pal Singh, co-founder and director of Vedic Natural Care, the company that owns the brand. “When we say that the brand aaranyaa is the range of natural products, we want our end users to realize this and share their experience with me. I am not aware if other brands have their director’s mobile number and email inscribed on each of the products—I have done this so that I am available and responsible for all kinds of feedback.”
Consumers must verify if what they are buying meets their consumption needs and suitability requirements, emphasizes Sushma Subba, head of communications at Kama Ayurveda, pointing to a footnote on the brand’s brochure. “This is a pure, natural, Ayurvedic product. Results may vary with each individual. Patch test recommended,” it reads.
Most buyers, though, find instant comfort in words like natural or herbal and differentiate them from conventional products merely by the “absence of chemicals”. The reality, however, is much more complicated.
Consider this. Even though a natural product can be organic and a green lifestyle can be eco-friendly, not all green teas, multi-grain breads, honeys or herbal lotions are organic. An organic billboard on a store doesn’t imply that each of its products is organic. Not every natural beauty product is chemical-free—even if it has natural additives, it may contain class II preservatives (chemically manufactured compounds). Not all Ayurvedic concoctions are beneficial—some are known to provoke allergic reactions.
Organic products are expensive because they mandate a particular manufacturing process from seed to final product plus certification, but a pricey product doesn’t assure “purity”. A bleaching agent—which is ammonia-based—cannot be herbal; nor can genuine leather be ethical, as it uses animal hide. Besides, organic products may not necessarily be ethical as the company may have employed child labour or agreed to test it on animals. Ongoing global debates on the issue don’t make it easier even for well-informed consumers. While chefs swear that organic vegetables, meats and fruits result in distinctly better-tasting food, nutrionists haven’t been able to prove if an organic diet is healthier. In September, a study analysing four decades of research in 237 studies by Stanford University, US, scientists concluded that fruits, vegetables or meats labelled organic were on average no more nutritious or healthy than their conventional, less expensive counterparts. Nor were they less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.
Krishan Guptaa, managing director and global CEO of Organic India Pvt. Ltd, says it is important to look for the India Organic mark mandatory for all certified Indian organic products. Additionally, if a brand exports to other countries, it needs clearance from a certifying agency of that country, like the US department of agriculture in the case of the US. Fabindia stamps its own organic certification alongside the India Organic logo. Ashima Agarwal, category head, organic foods, at Fabindia, adds that they also use the SGS (an inspection, verification and certification agency) mark on their organic products.
Certification is mandatory but it is expensive, tough to procure and riddled with ethical questions. “Proper checks are not being done by certification agencies. Sometimes directors of companies producing organic stuff are part of the certifying agencies, making it a very incestuous area,” says Mukhi. Attempts to contact Apeda officials failed.
Mumbai-based Nisha Bora, founder of Elrinho, which manufactures wood-free paper from rhinoceros and elephant poo to protect the forests of Assam, agrees. “Being in manufacturing for a year has shown me how startlingly insincere the industry is. You can claim anything and get away with it; what you actually do is irrelevant. Certification costs a bomb. Indian government agencies exist, but people don’t even bother to reply,” says Bora.
Despite the onerous processes and the odds, most stakeholders of the organic movement say they want to do their bit. Take the orbit of organic clothing. India may be called the most natural market for organic cotton clothing but getting it right from the farming to the design stage is easier said than done. While polyester (made with petroleum and crude) releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, organic farming takes 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre per year out of the atmosphere. On the other hand, conventionally grown cotton is one of the most water-dependent crops, using more than 2,000 litres of water to produce cotton for an average kurti.
But cotton farmers trying to make the transition to organic often struggle because the soil takes three-five years to recover as it is weaned off agrochemical methods. That’s why farmers need NGOs and government support as well as private entrepreneurs who work directly with them.
Delhi-based Simran Lal, the CEO of Good Earth, an influential lifestyle brand that launched Gumdrops, a range of baby wear made from fully certified organic cotton, says it is about long-term commitment. “It’s a small clothing line for babies but it is my way of educating the customers, raising awareness about organic products for the next generation and concern for the environment,” says Lal.
Recently, Fabindia also launched Be The Change, a small completely organic line of ready-to-wear for women, while the Jaipur-based brand, Soma, has a section called Soma Organic that includes clothing for children and adults as well as bed and bath linen.
Guptaa of Organic India says the only way to ensure best practices is to monitor the full chain of organic manufacturing, from the seed to the finished product.
Everyone emphasizes that while manufacturers must take ownership for authenticity, consumers too need to wake up. “Consumers should be more discriminating if they are making choices that protect the earth and people. We need a rise in green consciousness across society,” says Shiva, even as Bora fumes about consumer apathy. “In the six months since we started to call our paper organic, I have been asked just once about the authenticity of the claim. People do not care. Not about credibility, nor about the difference in the end result,” she says.
Choosing an organic lifestyle is less about sporadic indulgence and more about long-term commitment. Its goodness, insist the experts, grows slowly but assuredly. But you have to follow it long and faithfully enough to become a true convert.
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Our cut-out-and-keep glossary will ensure you’re not confused the next time you go shopping.
u Organic: Food grown on organic farms without the use of artificial additives, colours, synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, hormones, pesticides, radiation or genetic manipulation. It should be certified so.
u Natural: Products that do not contain any artificial ingredients, colouring agents, chemical preservatives or flavouring, and meat and poultry that is minimally processed.
u Green: Foods that are rich in chlorophyll or its supplements, wheat, barley and oat grass, their powders and juices, as well as raw materials derived from plants are all accepted as green foods. They include spirulina, freshwater plants, green vegetables as well as sprouts grown from their seeds. They may or may not be organic.
u Sustainable: Farming or processes that ensure the sustainability of the farm/ enterprise while preserving the environment help to create a sustainable lifestyle.
u Ayurvedic: Widely regarded as the oldest alternative system of healing, Ayurveda argues for a balance between three energies—‘vata’ (air), ‘kapha’ (water) and ‘pitta’ (fire). All Ayurvedic products are derived from herbs and claim medicinal properties.
u Ethical: Products manufactured with fair trade practices or those that do not endanger human, animal or plant life, are not tested on animals, and do not use unethical means like child labour during the production process.
u Herbal: Products that include herbs, herbal materials—flowers, fruits, seeds, stems, leaves, bark, roots, or their combined preparations in powdered or fragmented form—and finished herbal products where the active ingredients are all derived from plants or parts of plants.
u Botanical: Any substance derived from a plant and used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes is botanical. Botanical products come closest to herbal ones.
u Eco-friendly: Protective of the environment, eco-friendly products are created while conserving natural resources like water and energy and contribute to the prevention of air, water and land pollution.
Somak Ghoshal and Chanpreet Khurana contributed to this story.