Interview: Consumer demand necessary to push green products manufacturing in India

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Mr. Patrick von Braunmühl is the Senior International Advisor to GTZ- ASEM in the project “Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption in India” and is heading a number of pilot initiatives for consumer awareness and protection programs in several states of India.

Can you tell us about the project “Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption in India”?

The GTZ Project ‘Consumer Protection and Sustainable Consumption in India’ was started in 2007 as a part of the Indo German Bilateral program called ASEM (Advisory Services in Environment Management). This program has four components- one is working with industry, second with municipality, third with regulation and fourth with consumers. We are working with the consumers, as they are one of the most important stakeholders if you want to make a change. Our main partner is the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Government of India which is responsible for creating consumer awareness through public awareness campaigns like Jago Grahak Jago. The idea was to link the rights and interests of the consumers with the responsibilities of the consumers. With this background, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and the project work together with the objective to empower consumers to make the right purchase decisions in favour of good quality and sustainable production processes.

Who are the main stakeholders in this project?

Our main partner is the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, but we have a vast network of other stakeholders including Voluntary Consumer Organizations and NGOs who are active at the grassroots level, business associations like FICCI and a number of State Governments.

What are some of the projects and activities under the project?

Currently, we have selected 5 states namely Gujarat, Orissa, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh. We have agreements with them on specific aspects of consumer protection. A pilot project that covers all these states aims to build Consumer Advice Centers and interlink them into a Consumer Advice Network with a common knowledge base and a central complaints database. These centers have now become operational in four of the 5 selected states (except West Bengal) since May ’10. The initiative has really picked up as we record more and more consumers contacts as they start approaching the ‘advice centers’.

These centres apart from redressing consumer complaints are also conducting a number of campaigns in villages on specific topics that cater to consumers. This includes imparting information on pre purchase advice (like how to find the best product or to decide on a product based on comparative tests). The centers also register complaints from people who have bought products or services and are not satisfied. In these cases we try to facilitate a solution by contacting the trader or offering mediation. As a last resort we advise consumers on ways to approach the consumer courts.

Do the Consumer Advice Centers work on awareness in urban areas as well or only in rural areas?

We aim to strike a balance. In most of the states we have selected two districts- one with urban and the other with semi rural population. Of course, the major consuming class is found mostly in urban areas, but we deliberately also try to target more rural areas. A lot of awareness is generated through Self Help Groups of NGOs and also by various art media like street theatre etc. It also involves making them aware about the environmental impact of their consumption habits, sustainable consumption and what they can do about it.

Are there any other activities or approaches being taken to grab consumer attention on sustainable consumption?

We are in the process of developing a ‘Sustainable Shopping Guide’, a model which was developed in Germany earlier and was adopted very successfully by a lot of consumers. Along with explaining why sustainable consumption is important, the guide also has a lot of practical advice on how consumers can act more sustainably, including how waste should be treated, which products to buy and which ones to avoid. One part lists and explains product labels e.g. on organic food, fair trade products, and energy efficiency of electronic products to educate people on that. This guide would have a cross-sectoral approach and we hope to finalize and present the final guide to the public towards the end of the year (possibly by November) and this will be an important tool for consumers in India.

Would you also be suggesting certain brands in this guide to help consumers decide between various companies in the different range of products? If yes, are you doing any surveys/studies to determine such brands?

Suggesting brands is a difficult issue as normally we don’t feel that we should tell people that this is the brand you should buy. However, there are some brands which are very engaged in adopting environmental and social standards for their operations including their supply chains. To make consumers aware of this we may name a few of these brands.

But a better solution than naming brands is to guide consumers on independent labels relating to the sustainability of products and services. Besides the star rating energy efficiency label there are unfortunately very few such labels yet which apply to different product categories. However, we were able to collate a considerable amount of information through research and stakeholder interviews.

There are schemes like the Ecomark, but the labeling never picked up interest by industries and has not been marketed in this way, what do you think could be the reason?

A lot has been written about it and as everyone would agree EcoMark has not been successful and there are lots of reasons to it. One could be that the criteria and process for obtaining the label is lengthy and complicated, another reason could be that a lot of industry bodies do not yet see a selling point of the label. There is also a cost factor associated with it. GTZ has developed a set of recommendations on how to improve the EcoMark and make it more relevant in the market. But these recommendations can only be implemented by the government.

Another useful instrument to strengthen sustainable consumption is comparative testing. In Europe and US, independent consumer organizations do comparative testing of products not just in terms of quality but also in terms of sustainability of production processes. This has quite an impact as a large number of consumers read these tests.

From the Consumer Advice Centers, what has been the feedback on the perspective of the consumers- are they aware or concerned about the sustainability status of the products they buy?

Though it is still early for the Consumer Advice Centers but we have done some baseline surveys before, and it has been quite interesting to see the level of awareness of the consumers. However, the concept of sustainable consumption is not yet clear to many people. Most of the people do not know what it means or entails. However, many consumers get very interested in the concept of Sustainable Consumption once you explain it to them. What they say is that if there is enough information to help them decide what to buy, then they would buy products which are more socially and environmentally sustainable. It is the lack of information which is the major issue. Reviving the EcoMark would be a major step but we also know a number of organizations who are working on private labels that would provide guidance to consumers on sustainability.

From the research that we have done for the shopping guide, we have seen that there is a lot of development in the field of “green” marketing and consumption. Many producers begin to see a good selling argument in advertising ‘green’ products. This is a promising development as it shows that environmental engagement is increasingly seen as a business case and not just philanthropy. But the risk is that misleading advertisement will make it impossible for consumers to judge the substance of green claims. The resulting lack of transparency could be a significant obstacle to the new trend. Effective regulation and deterring sanctions are yet to be developed against misleading advertisement in India. As a bottom line independent information such as product labels or comparative testing by NGOs and the prevention of misleading advertisement are two pillars of the same strategy to improve the transparency of production processes and thus support the adoption of more sustainable consumption patterns.

Which role do consumers play for sustainable development in India?

Currently retailers in India do not see a very serious consumer demand for sustainable products. As consumers become more aware and start demanding more sustainable products, this perspective is bound to change. So, raising consumer awareness is just as important as capacity building programs for manufacturers. Unless they feel that there is a real demand at the consumer end for sustainable products, there will hardly be a business case for investing in environmental and social responsibility.

As of now, sustainable sourcing angle is in play only while companies in Europe and US import from India, they demand that their suppliers have sustainable production processes. And this is mainly because of consumer demand in these countries. It may take some time to develop that consumer perspective in India. But it will inevitably happen.

This interview was conducted by Roselin Dey, Editorial Team, India Carbon Outlook.

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Frankart Culinary 

Author: Roselin Dey