How do you package the ‘natural’?

Naturalism as a concept in lifestyle products is an ill-defined and overused term. For the inaugural edition of our monthly salon, Lounge Lounge—where we bring together thought leaders for a deep dive—we discussed the various ways in which those who sell ‘natural’ package and present it to the world


(From left) Alice Farquhar, Aditi Dugar, Stephane De Meurville, Saniya Kantawala, Sreejit Nair, (seated) Anavila Misra.
(From left) Alice Farquhar, Aditi Dugar, Stephane De Meurville, Saniya Kantawala, Sreejit Nair, (seated) Anavila Misra.

Voices

Alice Farquhar, global brand education and training manager, Belvedere Vodka. Also the ambassador of Belvedere’s “natural inception” concept.

Aditi Dugar, director and co-owner, Masque—a Mumbai restaurant that specializes in a locally- sourced food philosophy.

Stephane De Meurville, managing director, Moet Hennessy India.

Saniya Kantawala, interior designer with a focus on recycling and natural materials.

Sreejit Nair, sales director, Raw Pressery, a cold- pressed juice company that makes 100% pure juices and follows a clean label philosophy.

Anavila Misra, fashion designer—one of the first designers to embrace pure linen yarn for saris.

There are two sides to this. A product can be labelled “natural”, immediately setting off associations of holistic wellness, of being less invasive, and also being good for the planet. It can also, however, trigger suspicion among potential consumers that a niche brand is selling a product with a price tag that’s most likely unreasonable, and meant only for a certain segment.

To address the underpinnings of the concept of naturalism in lifestyle brands, we brought together stakeholders from a cross-section of industries for a meal at Masque—fittingly, a Mumbai restaurant with the motto “nature on a plate”. Edited excerpts:

Lounge: How do you table the idea of being natural effectively in the food and beverage industry?

Dugar: The idea behind our restaurant, Masque, was to create a slow movement. At present, the market caters to a high-energy space, best suited to millennials. At Masque, we wanted to create an environment where you can enjoy what you’re eating. That’s natural to us. We studied the Indian landscape, and decided to harness what the country has to offer keeping in mind the specific climactic conditions we live in.

Eventually, we were driven by how our ancestors ate: eating only seasonal and eating from the region. All the food at Masque is produce-centric. For instance, we’ve used rhododendron in one of our menus. It comes from the sap of a tree and makes a bitter syrup that we use for cocktails. We married it with a pepper: That’s how the locals use it for medicinal purposes in the Himalayan region, where it is grown. Another instance is, we found a kind of really large lemon from Rampur in Himachal Pradesh. We used every element of that lemon, from the skin to the pith. To be natural, to me, also means not wasting the produce; it means looking at a plant and trying to use every part of it.

Farquhar: I agree, “natural” is confusing terminology, just like organic. At Belvedere, we started to think, how do we define natural and why is it important to us? Belvedere is vodka made with no additives. Under Polish law, we’re not allowed to add anything to vodka after distillation. No sugars, no chemicals, no glycerine, no oils, no honey... nothing to affect how it tastes. That was the first pillar of our “natural inception” concept. It is made from rye and water; simple ingredients that people can easily identify with. We’re one of the few distilleries to own our own water source, so we have full traceability of both the grain and the water.

We’ve been thinking about how we could help consumers drink in a more conscious way. The Spritz that we have created recently is a signature expression of a low-alcohol and low-sugar cocktail. Sugar is a concept very prevalent in food. One doesn’t necessarily think about it when one drinks. You might have that friend who eats quinoa salad, goes to the gym, but then has a Pina Colada, because in their head, they think coconut milk and pineapple is natural and good. But they don’t realize how much sugar there is in it.

So Belvedere was natural starting out, but the communication of it is recent?

Farquhar: Yes. We realized a couple of years ago that we needed to make our consumers aware. We’re never going to say that vodka is good for you, but we’re going to help people understand the ingredients and be more aware when they’re reading a cocktail menu. Often, the consumer goes to a bar and puts their trust in the bartender. If the bartender is on the same page as you, then good, but that’s not always the case. For instance, a bartender will use agave syrup which is very high in fructose and not great for you. But would you as a consumer know that? Agave is a fruit and you’d think it’s natural.

Sreejit, cold-pressed juices seem like a straightforward natural product. What are the challenges as you repackage them?

Nair: Firstly, our juices don’t look great. There is sedimentation. You might have one bottle where the pomegranate looks paler or darker, depending on how ripe the fruit was. If you try to make apple juice at home, you’ll see it’s not transparent as you see it in bottles. It has pulp, roughage, body. We’ve launched an apple juice and people say it looks dirty. But that’s how juice from an apple looks. These are things people are not used to. They are used to the standardized thing day in and day out. That’s certainly one of the challenges we face.

There’s also the matter of expectation. I worked for PepsiCo India for eight years before I moved to Raw Pressery. I found it difficult to develop the right taste. To me commercially packaged orange juice tasted very different from the real stuff. Also, I wasn’t aware that every juice (out there) has water. Read the label: If the first ingredient is water, you know the juice is from a concentrate. But at Raw, we spell out the ingredients in a pomegranate juice as just ‘pomegranate’. That’s it.

How does Raw counter established perceptions in trying to redefine what’s natural?

Nair: We believe in the clean label philosophy...using minimum ingredients and making it very easy to understand labels; nothing like stabilizer A, B, C, written on the pack. That’s how we want to educate people about the idea of natural. At one of our brainstorming sessions someone suggested, ‘why don’t we put ingredients in the front and brand at the back of the label?’

Anavila, how does naturalism translate to clothing?

Misra: For me, it’s about using raw materials that are natural. That’s the basis of (my) brand. The yarn we use for Anavila is pure linen and it comes from Belgium and France, where you get the long staple-length linen. We either use natural colour, which we do when we make something indigo, or harada, colours that have become staples. Or we use azo-free dyes. All our products are handwoven in India, and we want to bring enough (monetary) value to the skilled artisans.

"How they Lounge: I like to slip into my PJs—I have a striped linen pair that I love—and watch Romedy Now or read a book, with a bowl of fresh fruits by my side which is full of mangoes these days. "- Anavila Mishra

In handloom, imperfection and irregularities are desired qualities. But we’re accustomed to wearing standardized fabrics and garments. How do you get people to believe that slub is beautiful?

Misra: When I started, I think it was a mindset that I was trying to break: the sari and its perception as a traditional, formal textile. I started to deconstruct the sari and its set image in order to make it relevant for our generation, where we’re moving about all the time.

Firstly, it was tough to convince the weaver to actually weave linen, because nobody had done it (for saris). To be draped in five-and-a-half metres of linen that crushes easily, is thick, and has body, it didn’t seem right. Linen is not as fine as silk, so the sari looks bulky when you fold it, but when you drape it and experience the comfort it brings to you, you don’t want to go back to anything else.

My first exhibition was six years ago at the Artisans’ Gallery (Kala Ghoda, Mumbai). It was a small, closed environment. A few women walked in, enquired, tried and draped, and we sold out in a few hours. The timing was right.

Saniya, how does being natural translate to living well?

Kantawala: The paradox about the field that we’re in—interior design—is that when we go natural, we’re also criticized for it. Using a natural material like wood implies cutting more trees. Yet we love the authenticity that such materials bring to a space, like with high-quality wood, for instance. To negotiate that, I use wood but I don’t use fresh wood, I recycle. In one of our projects for a restaurant—the Bar Terminal in Mumbai—we used recycled wood, paper and glass tables. Plastic food cans were appropriated for light shades. We took old keys, melted them and mixed them with wood to see what emerges. The shapes that emerged were beautiful.

So being natural implies being eco-conscious?

Kantawala: Yes, but there are other interpretations as well. For instance, being natural is to maintain the original form of a material as much as possible. We use so much concrete in construction, but a stone building has a unique character. So using materials that are in their natural form is another option we practise a lot at our firm. The motivation is that we enjoy eating along a riverside, so to create that proximity to nature within an interior space is how I define being natural.

Dugar: I’d like to add that this holds true for food as well. Simplicity is key. It’s important to treat and respect ingredients while cooking. Everything begins and should end with fantastic flavour and not taking away from the real taste of the produce.

Is this idea of going natural glorified nostalgia, something that we fetishize, or is it a valid and sustainable possibility going forward?

De Meurville: I think it’s about awareness and not nostalgia. The moment you understand what you’re consuming, who’s producing it, how it’s being transported, how much impact it has on the planet. The moment you consider these things, you start caring, and then acting and changing your behaviour. There certainly is much viability in it, in relooking at our roots and reconsidering the basics.

In conversation with Komal Sharma.

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