Anupama Sajeet
Feb 7, 2024

How green is India's adland valley?

In light of the COP28 agreement to transition from fossil fuels and India's ad watchdog's directives to curb greenwashing, where do Indian agencies stand on the matter, especially in working with clients?

How green is India's adland valley?
In a noteworthy development last month, India’s advertising industry watchdog ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India) took a stand against deceptive environmental claims in the communications space by coming up with a set of rules that aims to crack down on greenwashing in ads. 
Effective 15 February 2024, these 'guidelines for advertisements making environmental/ green claims' will ensure that advertisers’ green claims are true and evidence-based, reliable and verifiable. The guidelines intend to separate the wheat from the chaff by bringing transparency and accountability in environmental claims-based advertising by companies.
This comes on the back of the perception that consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious and aware. 
A recent survey by Ipsos has revealed some compelling findings about how Indians perceive sustainability. The India specific study showed a deep concern among consumers for the environment with at least 92% of those polled stating they are concerned and further two thirds believing that our planet was at risk. 
While governments and companies are expected to take action, they are seen as taking insufficient actions, as per the study. However, even as consumer resolve is well intended, their awareness on the actions needed for greater impact was found to be lacking.
This has also meant that there's been a surge in the number of offerings and businesses purporting to fulfil this demand, as observed by the advertising regulatory body.
In this quest for 'obligatory' environmental consciousness, there has been a disparity between the verbal claims and actual execution of sustainable practices, both at the product level and at the communication level.
With India reiterating its target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 and to meet 50% of its electricity requirements from renewable energy sources by 2030 in the Finance Minister’s 2024 Union Budget speech, the private sector shoulders additional importance in charting its business objectives with the Government’s goals.

What is greenwashing?

ASCI defines greenwashing as "unsubstantiated, false, deceptive, misleading environmental claims about products, services, processes, brands or operations as a whole, or claims that omit or hide information, to give the impression that they are less harmful or more beneficial to the environment than they actually are".

According to Sandeep Goyal, managing director of Rediffusion, greenwashing has many dimensions such as claims that are false, where data is cooked up or overstated, and money spent on green advertising exceeds the expense on green initiatives. It need not always be an overtly false claim, he says, it can be a claim that isn't entirely accurate or is in some way deceptive or misleading.
Goyal cites a 2020 study by the European Commission which found that of the 150 corporate environmental claims, 53% gave vague, misleading or unfounded information and 40% had no supporting evidence - data it cited in proposing a new law on green claims by companies in March 2023.
A survey of company executives in 16 countries conducted by The Harris Poll for Google Cloud and released in April 2022, found a similar level of greenwashing: 58 % of the 1,491 respondents said their organisation had engaged in the practice, he shared.
"Using terms such as sustainable, green or eco-friendly - or just claiming to be 'good for the planet' or 'better for the environment' - can help organisations appear to be greener, said Goyal.
"However, the reality of such nonspecific terms is that they can be and often are used without supporting evidence or facts that could be easily relayed to the consumer," he added.
As such, an organisation is simply labelling or promoting a product or service as being green, when in fact there is no undeniable, verifiable evidence that it is more environmentally sustainable, he explained before adding, “Ad agencies have no way to ascertain if these claims are true and usually play along.”
Moreover, he believes that the ASCI guidelines won’t help, as they are not enforceable.
"Greenwashing is to the environment what a real estate brochure is to a potential home buyer - It looks beautiful only from the outside," says Abhik Santara, director and CEO of  a t o m, and founding partner, The Network.
So how does an agency stay away from greenwashing?
It's easy, according to Santara. “Ask more questions. When collaborating with clients, assess and validate their claims and ensure they align with measurable actions. It’s that simple. A little research in guidelines and messaging goes a long way,” he explained.
But is it really so simple?
The 'India story' so far
ASCI recently conducted a comprehensive scanning of advertisements in India for green claims.
The examination revealed a widespread misuse of terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘green’, across diverse sectors, spanning from automotive to FMCG products. 
"This loose application of environmental labels poses a potential risk of consumers misinterpreting the true nature of the product," according to Manisha Kapoor, CEO and secretary general, ASCI.
“For example, the general use of such terms could lead consumers to believe that an entire product is eco-friendly when only a part of it is. This highlights the need for vigilance and transparency to ensure consumers are accurately informed,” she adds.
Emphasising that greenwashing is no longer a non-issue in India, she says, “It's important to hold corporations accountable for their actions and ensure that they are genuinely committed to addressing these issues. However, it's also essential to recognise the potential for positive change and work towards building a more sustainable future through collective action and collaboration."
According to veteran media professional, Anita Nayyar who has held senior roles with Havas and more recently Patanjali, greenwashing to a large extent, was not considered a major issue in the Indian subcontinent region till not so long ago. 
However, she adds that with ASCI’s recent directive on the subject a level of seriousness should prevail.
"Even here, only the bigger groups make these claims about ‘sustainability’, ‘carbon footprint’, ‘eco-friendly’ etc as they are driven by global goals and hence their Indian offices are also mandated to do so," notes Nayyar.
"The advertising industry is way behind in terms of achieving these goals," she discloses, underlining the need to prioritise. 
On whether agencies can afford to take a stand and not work with fossil fuel clients in today's highly competitive landscape, Nayyar says it’s a tough decision to make. 
“With wafer-thin margins, today survival is difficult for agencies and unfortunately they have never been able to take a tough stance,” she adds.
According to Santara, Indian agencies want to be real when it comes to sustainability communication."There is a need to advocate for transparent practices, aligning brand claims with their efforts," he adds.
But he concedes that agencies cannot hold their heads high and refuse to work with greenwashing fossil fuel companies altogether.
"And they don’t have to either," he says, adding that steering clear from a challenge is not really a solution. 
“Taking a principled stand against working with fossil fuel clients can be challenging due to industry demand and the lucrative scope of good and challenging work. But, one does not ski safely by not skiing at all”, he points out.
Ad agencies mostly rely on the claims made by their clients, according to Rahul Mathew, chief creative officer, DDB Mudra Group.
However, he adds, “As you work closely and gain a deeper understanding of their business, you may start to notice glimpses of ‘grey’ beneath the ‘green’. At this point, it becomes the agency's responsibility to advise the client, both rationally and emotionally.”
He further notes, "There is a growing awareness among consumers, particularly in an era where Gen Z and millennials are holding brands accountable for their environmental impact."
"And if you make them believe and then let them down, they won’t forgive let alone forget,” he adds a cautionary note on why greenwashing, being a deceptive practice, progressively faces an uphill battle.
Nayantara Dutta, research director, Clean Creatives, explains the reason why there is less stigma around working on fossil fuel campaigns in India (and Asia overall), as compared to the West. 
“Fossil fuels have endangered our climate, but for many Asian countries they have also been deeply entwined with development pathways and strategies for providing energy access,” she said, adding that many agencies and PR firms in Asia proudly display their creative work for oil and gas clients.
"However, these campaigns are often based on misinformation and greenwashing, which deceive the public into thinking that fossil fuel companies care about the environment when they’re accelerating the climate crisis," she adds.
Calling ‘miseducation’ one of the greatest obstacles to sustainability in Asia, Dutta accentuates how fossil fuel campaigns confuse, guilt and mislead consumers by making them believe that they are personally responsible for the climate crisis, when in fact, 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions.
She cites an initiative called #iCan by the Indian multinational conglomerate, Adani Group.
"The initiative demands answers from consumers to questions such as, ‘can you lower your carbon footprint?’ and ‘can you be a partner in fighting global warming?’, that gaslight them into believing that climate change is their responsibility, while the company continues to invest in fossil fuel expansion that has destroyed villages to build a coal empire across India, Bangladesh and Australia," contends Dutta. 
“It should be asking itself those questions,” she stresses.
Adani group’s #iCan campaign
Dutta also cites the example of Indian Oil to highlight the deep-rooted industrial hypocrisy. “The company has released several campaigns promoting its net zero commitment while investing over 2,600 crore rupees in new refining projects and expansion.”
Indian Oil net zero campaign
Where should the line be drawn between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ client?


Globally too, the scenario has been far from rosy. At the recently held United Nations Climate Change conference, COP28 in Dubai, disturbing allegations arose when Clean Creatives, an organisation dedicated to improving the PR and communications sector, revealed that some public relations firms and advertising agencies involved in COP28 were simultaneously collaborating with ‘fossil fuel polluters’. 

This revelation, coming on the back of the global COP28 agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, underscores that even the world’s largest climate discussions hosted by the UN are not immune to the deceptive practices of greenwashing.
In its 2022 IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the United Nations directly addressed the communications and PR industry, emphasising the influential role of the media in shaping public discourse on climate mitigation.
Calling for an end to fossil fuel PR and marketing strategies, the report highlighted that fossil fuel marketing uses “climate-care statements” in attempts to greenwash and shift the narrative of climate change from being an obligation for corporate and government leaders to an individual responsibility.
Research by Clean Creatives uncovered 500 fossil fuel contracts from 294 different advertising and PR agencies from 2022 and 2023 in its annual F-List report published last year. The report - a comprehensive and current list of agencies working with fossil fuel companies - documented notable holding companies such as WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu, Havas, IPG, and Publicis, as well as agencies like Edelman among others that choose to continue working with fossil fuel companies despite the scientific consensus that this work is destroying the planet.
The communications firms were accused of misleading an industry into believing they’re progressing on sustainability goals through the massive public relations machinery that shields the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny.
In September last year, Havas came under fire for its global media account win for oil major Shell. Previously, WPP served as the oil company’s agency for 18 years before it invited pitches for the media review in June 2023.
If agencies continue to work with fossil fuel clients, they risk losing talent and business, believes Dutta. “When Havas won the Shell media account, they immediately lost a client - the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
"In recent years, even as terms such as 'climate change', 'ESG', and 'sustainability', may have been reduced to buzzwords that help corporate behemoths score CSR goals or earn brownie points with their TG, it must be recognised that these terms represent critical issues that affect our planet and society," exhorts ASCI’S Kapoor.
Dutta stressed the need to educate the consumer when it came to raising awareness about the issue of deceptive green claims in marketing. 
“We must use creativity to educate people about sustainability. A Bain & Company study shows that although 90% of consumers in Asia care about sustainability enough to be willing to pay more for a sustainable product, 70% were unable to correctly identify products with a lower carbon footprint.”
She added, “Our industry has a responsibility to tell the truth, help people understand the gravity of this issue, and inspire them to take action.”
“With every fossil fuel new business win or continued contract, agencies are signalling that people are less important than profit. Their continued silence towards this issue is untenable. The industry and their clients are watching and will hold them to account," she surmised.

Campaign India had reached out to several network agencies apart from independent agencies for their take on the subject of greenwashing in India in light of the latest developments in the industry. They expressed their inability to participate, citing ‘global approval’ restrictions and ‘strict protocol' directives on the matter.
Campaign India

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