Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why eco-friendly brands have failed to make a mark in India

Shishir Goenka, a Mumbai-based exporter of organic cotton clothing, tried his luck launching a sustainable brand called Do U Speak Green? for the domestic market in 2009. The casual wear range for men, women and children was started out of passion for the environment at a time when sustainability wasn’t much of a buzzword.

The brand didn’t survive as neither the consumer not the market was ready for organic or sustainable clothing. “Not even at similar price points as the mainstream brands," said Goenka, who owns Fusion Clothing company. He wound up the domestic retail business, though he continues to take wholesale orders for clients. “Today, there is definitely more awareness among consumers, but the business requires a strong distribution network and branding for it to be commercially viable," he said.

Interest in sustainable solutions led him to launch The Green People of India in 2013, which was joined by at least 50 companies in fashion and other product categories. “That too fizzled out despite some free endorsement from John Abraham and Kalki Koechlin, as companies weren’t willing to spend on marketing and creating awareness," he said.

Although several startups both in fashion and beauty have turned to eco-friendly products, his major quarrel is with the larger brands. “They need to play a much bigger role in saving the planet. The onus is on them to both create awareness and promote sustainability," he said.

Two weeks ago, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study held human activity responsible for warming the atmosphere and scientists said reducing greenhouse gases could help the environment, this column argued for brands to adopt sustainability as their USP.

Interestingly, while critics focus on companies and what they do or don’t do for the environment, a new report by market researcher Kantar highlighted the mindset of the Indian consumer who is more interested in saving money than saving the planet.

The Asia Sustainability Foundational Study interviewed almost 10,000 consumers in nine countries with more than 1,000 in big Indian cities. Though 77% respondents said they are prepared to invest time and money in companies that try to do good, their intent does not always translate into action. 84% consumers still prioritize saving money over saving the planet in real-world actions, the report said. Kantar terms this as the ‘value-action gap’.

In a recent conversation with Mint, Samit Sinha, managing partner at Alchemist Brand Consulting, also highlighted the importance of the price-value equation. For a significantly large percentage of Indian consumers, price is often the sole determining factor of their purchase. “They simply cannot afford to spend a few extra rupees towards a cause which, from the perspective of the grim realities of their daily lives, would seem too distant and abstract," he said. Unless the government intervenes to help make sustainability affordable for companies and their consumers, the shift will not happen quickly enough to be consequential, except for the truly conscientious consumers from the affluent segments of society, he added.

Sanjay Sarma, founder of boutique branding and communications advisory SSARMA Consults, agreed that awareness hasn’t percolated down yet. As a nation, we may just be forced into sustainable mode through legislation, but anything that is forced leads to resistance, he argued. Sustainability and affordability do not always go hand-in-hand, unless we change the way we look at both, he said. “If one were to quantify value for money, can sustainability offer greater value in a consumer’s mind, than say the price-benefit equation? Brands must open up these conversations in their communication," Sarma added.

While more fashion and lifestyle brands have used the eco-conscious tag to push their products, few managed to build equity. “They may start off with good intent, but things often get compromised when faced with economic considerations and market forces. The ones who manage to hold on to their core values of sustainability, mostly remain niche players," Sarma said.

Much like Goenka, Sarma feels that care for the environment and sustainable practices are perhaps the last factors that larger brands consider. “The challenge, therefore, is to get more mainstream brands to change how they think, and embed consciousness about the environment into their DNA. Once they bring their supply chain and ecosystem into the ambit, it will have a larger impact."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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