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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Sustainability is the USP brands must adopt now

Sanjay Sarma, advertising veteran and founder of boutique branding and communications advisory SSARMA Consults, is as passionate about sustainability as he is about brands. He is closely involved with the International Climate Summit 2021 on “Powering India’s Hydrogen Ecosystem" to be held in New Delhi next month. So, last week, when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its landmark study, which said human activity has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land causing extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts, he was quick to underline the need for brands to adopt sustainable practices.

While the UN chief termed the report “code red for humanity", scientists said deep cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases could halt the rise in temperatures, putting the spotlight back on what corporates, brands and consumers could do to save the planet. “We only have one," said Sarma, adding that while consumers could pledge to reduce material consumption, brands could commit to reducing the use of fossil fuel-based materials.

On Wednesday, PepsiCo, Inc. announced its ambition to become “net water positive" by 2030, aiming to replenish more water than the company uses. In September 2020, FMCG major Unilever said it will replace 100% of the carbon derived from fossil fuels in its cleaning and laundry product formulations with renewable or recycled carbon. This would reduce the carbon footprint of brands such as Surf, Sunlight, Vim and Domex. In India, the company has innovated water-saving formulations for Rin laundry powders and bars that reduce the water needed for rinsing. In June, homegrown Dabur India said it was doing away with the paper cartons for its flagship Ayurvedic toothpaste brand Dabur Red Paste sold in key modern trade outlets in a joint initiative with Reliance Retail.

Sarma said in countries like Iceland, toothpastes are being sold without the outer cardboard box, saving tonnes of waste being tossed in landfills. Also, Unilever’s promise to eliminate fossil fuel from its cleaning products will definitely carry a well-meant message to consumers about the company’s intent and make a deep impact on their buying behaviour in times to come, he added.

Today’s consumer is largely well-informed and conscious of his/her existence and role in the ecosystem. Concern for the environment is now one of the prime factors besides health, safety and economics that form the core of the buying process, he said.

Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, cited an older global Nielsen study that said sales for companies with demonstrable commitment to sustainability grew more than those without. Also, more consumers were willing to pay a higher premium for sustainable brands in a clear trend indicative of changing consumer preferences. It is only common sense that consumers are more likely to favour companies and brands that they believe care about the living conditions on Earth and the well-being of their children and grandchildren over those who seem committed only to their owners, he said.

“So, more brands should become committed to sustainable practices, not just because it is expected of them as responsible corporate citizens, but also because it will increasingly make better business sense," he added.

While at the moment brands may be using their commitment to sustainability to differentiate themselves from their competitors, it will probably soon become hygiene—as in the barest minimum that consumers will expect from any brand, he added.

Sarma said brands must have the willingness to be change agents. They wield a large influence in shaping culture. Therefore, merely printing slogans on cloth bags isn’t going to be enough anymore. The brand voice should be strong enough to shape consumer behaviour towards demanding sustainability as an uncompromising value, he added.

But in an intensely competitive marketplace that exists today, brands are unlikely to voluntarily go green, especially if it doesn’t make economic sense, Sinha said. Clearly the changes need to be instituted at a global and systemic level for people across countries to work together as one—governments, media, corporations and, most importantly, consumers, he said.

“Societies as a whole need to be more conscious. And organizations driving branded consumption need a more structured top-down approach towards implementing sustainable practices. Not just 2% demanded by CSR (corporate social responsibility), but 100% demanded by the planet," added Sarma.

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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