Sustainability Has Entered The Heart Of Public Discourse: Prabha Narsimhan, HUL

Millennials and Gen Z have demonstrated environmentally and socially conscious consumer behaviors than anyone in the last two decades, she adds

Sustainability is an integral part of the way a brand approaches the world and its place in it – be it from a personal everyday perspective or from the perspective of building a brand. From a business lens, a great product is no longer sufficient to attract revenue. Consumers want businesses to echo their belief systems and consciously move away from brands that are not focused on ethical business practices. They are more conscious than ever before with purchase practices motivated by drivers that have a positive social, economic, and environmental impact. Therefore, sustainable brand identity does not just play a critical role in building an inclusive, healthy and conscious future, but it also plays a critical role in creating purchase motivation for a product.

Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) very recently launched the first ‘Smart Fill’ machine – an in-store vending model for its Home Care products with the aim to reuse, reduce and recycle plastic. This offers consumers an innovative option to reuse their plastic bottles by refilling products from HUL’s brands through the use of this smart refillery. To access products from the Smart Fill machine, consumers can either use their old empty bottles or purchase a Smart Fill bottle from the store at a nominal price.

To this effect, we spoke with Prabha Narsimhan – Executive Director (Home Care) for Hindustan Unilever and Vice President (Home Care) for Unilever South Asia on what goes behind building a sustainable and future-proof brand.


Q1. What are the critical steps to build a sustainable brand?

Building a sustainable brand requires a different approach than regular businesses. Planning is the only way to ensure a smooth transition. One of the critical factors is knowing how your brand fits into the space of sustainability and what your brand offers is imperative to creating a coherent ideology. Once you’ve figured out where the brand sits in the sustainability agenda, it becomes easy to leverage tools to appeal to both consumers and investors. 

For instance, Hindustan Unilever has long held the belief that being a responsible, sustainable business makes a stronger, better business. In addition to improving people’s health & wellbeing by enhancing nutrition and lifestyle choices along with an inclusive world, improving the health of the planet is a core tenant to our business strategy. Therefore, all our products and manufacturing practices are centered around reducing the environmental footprint.

Another crucial aspect involves identifying relevant partners to accelerate sustainable business innovation. For a large conglomerate such as ours, we want to work with partners and agencies who have values similar to our own and work to the same standards.

Lastly, and most important to this strategy is measurement. At HUL, we work actively to select the right metrics to keep the sustainability strategy on track.

Q2. What are the challenges and opportunities when a brand takes the sustainable route?

Sustainability has recently experienced an evolutionary leap and has entered the heart of public discourse, across generations and societal groups. However, larger social, economic and evaluation barriers cause hindrance to a business considering sustainable development because it requires major changes in plans and strategy.

One key challenge is the lack of a framework for sustainability strategies which eventually doesn’t integrate well within the business strategy. Secondly, alignment across global operations becomes a challenge for a conglomerate. A strict policy that reflects the company’s value system from sourcing and supply chain to production and HQ operations becomes extremely important. The third is making sure the people at the organization believe and work towards the goal the company has set out to achieve. People make organizations after all.

Q3. What is sustainability's impact on brand value?

For customers to become loyal custodians of the brand, they have to like you. And just like any long-term relationship, it helps if you have shared values. Consumers relate with brands they love and strongly advocate the ideas that are embedded in their philosophy and image. For any business to be successful, its long-term objectives have to be built on principles of circular economy and giving back to society, with sustainability being an important element thereof. In today’s day and age, a company is required to invest just as much in its social endeavors as it is required to invest in commercial objectives to build a credible image for itself.

Q4. In a Nielsen report, millennials were identified as the demographic most likely to pay extra for sustainable products, with almost 75 percent agreeing that they would put their hand in their pocket for ethical offerings. How are millennials and Gen Z driving this change or affecting a brand's objectives?

Millennials and Gen Z have demonstrated environmentally and socially conscious consumer behaviors than anyone in the last two decades. With information access enabled by digital mediums along with increased spending power, they are translating awareness into conscientious, organic, and environment-friendly product choices. This is also a generation that strongly advocates that any act of ‘taking away' from the nature instead of ‘giving back’ must be condemned.

This has led to brands rejig their overall marketing strategies from more than just sell a product for profits. It has made companies re-assess their priorities and align them with purpose-led marketing strategies. We are proud that since its very inception, Unilever has been advocating sustainable living and engaging with relevant stakeholders including the Gen Z’s at various touchpoints to address their needs of conscious buying habits.

Q5. How can brands empower consumers to have eco-friendly choices?

Brands can and must play their part in empowering consumers to make sustainable choices. And one of the key aspects of this empowerment journey is by offering choices that are accessible to them!

As a brand, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has always been solutions-oriented and endeavored to find comprehensive and holistic solutions, especially for plastic management. At our end, we have done our bit by introducing innovative solutions like optimizing package design and format, the substitution of commodity polymers with performance-based polymers, migrating to recyclable flexibles across our portfolio and use of 80 percent recycled PET in many of our personal care brands amongst other things. However, for an overall high impact, all the stakeholders, which includes the consumers, need to play their part to curb this plastic menace.

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