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Retail in Critical Care – The Impact of COVID-2019

Oil shocks, financial market crashes, localised wars and even medical emergencies like SARS pale when compared to the speed and the scale of the mayhem created by SARS-CoV-2. In recent decades the world has become far more interconnected through travel and trade, so the viral disease – medical and economic – now spreads faster than ever. Airlines carrying business and leisure-travellers have also quickly carried the virus. Businesses benefitting from lower costs and global scale are today infected deeply due to the concentration of manufacturing and trade.

A common defensive action worldwide is the lock-down of cities to slow community transmission (something that, ironically, the World Health Organization was denying as late as mid-January). The Indian government implemented a full-scale 3-week national lockdown from March 25. The suddenness of this decision took most businesses by surprise, but quick action to ensure physical distancing was critical.

Clearly consumer businesses are hit hard. If we stay home, many “needs” disappear; among them entertainment, eating out, and buying products related to socializing. Even grocery shopping drops; when you’re not strolling through the supermarket, the attention is focussed on “needs”, not “wants”. A travel ban means no sales at airport and railway kiosks, but also no commute to the airport and station which, in turn means that the businesses that support taxi drivers’ daily needs are hit.

Responses vary, but cash is king! US retailers have wrangled aid and tax breaks of potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, as part of a US$2 trillion stimulus. A British retailer is filing for administration to avoid threats of legal action, and has asked landlords for a 5-month retail holiday. Several western apparel retailers are cancelling orders, even with plaintive appeals from supplier countries such as Bangladesh and India. In India, large corporate retailers are negotiating rental waivers for the lockdown period or longer. Many retailers are bloated with excess inventory and, with lost weeks of sales, have started cancelling orders with their suppliers citing “force majeure”. Marketing spends have been hit. (As an aside, will “viral marketing” ever be the same?)

On the upside are interesting collaborations and shifts emerging. In the USA, Jo-Ann Stores is supplying fabric and materials to be made up into masks and hospital gowns at retailer Nieman Marcus’ alteration facilities. LVMH is converting its French cosmetics factories into hand sanitizer production units for hospitals, and American distilleries are giving away their alcohol-based solutions. In India, hospitality groups are providing quarantine facilities at their empty hotels. Zomato and Swiggy are partnering to deliver orders booked by both online and offline retailers, who are also partnering between themselves, in an unprecedented wave of coopetition. Ecommerce and home delivery models are getting a totally unexpected boost due to quarantine conditions.

Life-after-lockdown won’t go back to “normal”. People will remain concerned about physical exposure and are unlikely to want to spend long periods of time in crowds, so entertainment venues and restaurants will suffer for several weeks or months even after restrictions are lifted, as will malls and large-format stores where families can spend long periods of time.

The second major concern will be income-insecurity for a large portion of the consuming population. The frequency and value of discretionary purchases – offline and online – will remain subdued for months including entertainment, eating-out and ordering-in, fashion, home and lifestyle products, electronics and durables.

The saving grace is that for a large portion of India, the Dusshera-Deepavali season and weddings provide a huge boost, and that could still float some boats in the second half of this year. Health and wellness related products and services would also benefit, at least in the short term. So 2020 may not be a complete washout.

So, what now?

Retailers and suppliers both need to start seriously questioning whether they are valuable to their customer or a replaceable commodity, and crystallise the value proposition: what is it that the customer values, and why? Business expansion, rationalised in 2009-10, had also started going haywire recently. It is again time to focus on product line viability and store productivity, and be clear-minded about the units to be retained.

Someone once said, never let a good crisis be wasted.

This is a historical turning point. It should be a time of reflection, reinvention, rejuvenation. It would be a shame if we fail to use it to create new life-patterns, social constructs, business models and economic paradigms.

(This article was published in the Financial Express under the headline “As Consumer businesses take a hard hit, time for retailers to reflect and reinvent”

5 Pieces of Advice to Young Professionals Entering the Fashion Industry

(The following is the video and the text of the Commencement Speech by Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, at the Convocation of the batch graduating in 2019 from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Patna, India.)

I would like to just share a few learnings from my own career. I hope some of these learnings will provide you some food for thought, and if they stick, I hope they prove valuable to you in some way in your own career.

I think as a graduate of a professional institute, there are 5 life-skills or attributes or pieces of advice that could be useful to you.

  1. Approach work in an integrative manner, not distributive: As you enter the industry, you will find that there is a tendency to specialize. Entry level roles are functionally specific. As an individual you need to make a special effort to not lose the larger perspective. As you grow in your career you will find that an ability to connect the dots and show others the bigger picture will be a more valuable skill than you can imagine today. So, if you are a designer, as about a hundred of you present here are, please spend time and effort understanding the intricacies of manufacturing, the nuances of marketing and the thrust of business development. If you are a merchandiser or a technologist, please make time to expose yourself to art, music, cinema – what might seem to you as entertainment (or even a waste of time) today will go a long way in preparing you for leadership roles, because you will be able to not only understand your own function but understand what makes the other parts of the organisation tick.
  2. Be available to others: No matter what work you do, it is never in isolation and depends on support of your colleagues and peers, within and outside the organisation. By making yourself available to others – whether to help in a professional situation or personal – you lay the foundations for relationships that will support you through your career and your life in ways that you cannot anticipate or plan. All professional success is built on foundations laid by others. The best way to express thanks for their contributions is by making yourself available to make others succeed.
  3. Learn. Learn. Never stop learning: As you graduate today, I hope you will have no illusion that you have learned everything you need for the rest of your career, and that you are set for life. The world is changing faster than ever, and so is the market and the industry. Make your skill set something that is refreshed all the time. If you don’t cultivate the hunger to learn, it is very likely that there will come a point in your career where you are feeling stuck and will not have the tools available to push yourself into a new trajectory or career orbit.
  4. Have integrity: Be honest to the work that you do, be honest to the organisation that you work for, to your colleagues, to your customers, to your suppliers, to your juniors. The word “integrity” has its roots in “intact” or “whole”. When someone lacks integrity, it is as if they have a split personality – thinking or believing one way, while behaving another way. The greater the difference between the two, the more energy you will waste. If you have integrity in life, if your thoughts, words and actions are aligned, all your energy will work in the same direction. I know this could be possibly the most difficult pieces of advice I’m asking you to follow, but I think it will pay off for you in building your career.
  5. Adopt a responsible approach towards the environment: As graduating students of NIFT you need to realise that you are becoming a part of the 2nd most polluting industry in the world after oil and gas! As India’s economic growth continues, the fashion, consumer products and retail sector are expected to grow as well. It is critical that today’s youth actually start questioning how this industry runs worldwide. Please don’t blindly accept that just because the global industry has worked in a particular way for the last 80-100 years, it is the right way. The fashion sector runs on planned obsolescence – i.e. products are planned to be discarded within a short time, even if physically and functionally there is nothing wrong with them. At a recent industry conference, I called fashion a “zombie industry” – zombies are supposed to be dead but they act as if they are alive, as they run about eating people’s brains. Don’t become another zombie in a zombie industry. Find ways to fight the waste created within and by this industry. If you can make it more sustainable, less wasteful, it is your own world that will be a better place to live in.

Thank you so much for patiently hearing me out. I hope some of the advice would have resonated with you, and will prove useful. I wish you all the very best and offer you my congratulations, on behalf of all the other alumni – welcome to the industry. Thank you!

Food Processing – Supply Chain Conflicts and Food Security (Video)

This is a recording of a short, candid talk by Devangshu Dutta (chief executive, Third Eyesight) at the ASSOCHAM’s 8th Global Food Processing Summit in New Delhi, India.

He touched upon the inherent conflicts in the food supply chain we need to be aware of before formulating policies and practices, and strongly urged everyone to look at food security from the point of view of sustainability and risk-management. (Transcript below.)

TRANSCRIPT:

I’ll just take just few minutes to share a few thoughts with you on the sector.

The session was titled “Make in India: Platform for investment opportunity in food processing sector and 100 percent FDI in food retail”.

As we all know, whoever’s been following the news, there’s all this buzz around FDI into retail being allowed, not only for physical retail but also for e-commerce companies, and there are two very strong sets of drivers. On the one hand is the likes of Walmart and Tesco and people who want to actually set up food retail. and you know food is the largest consumption in our basket of consumer products, so they obviously want to tap into that demand. The second side is Amazon and the likes of it where again you know there are no barriers in terms of location, you are buying on the net, tapping into a consumer who’s looking for convenience, and there you need to actually service that demand with food and grocery which is packaged, so there is obviously a very strong push a very strong lobby for that to happen. At the same time there’s a very strong lobby against that because there are domestic retailers who invested a lot of money over the last maybe 10-15 years in setting up a lot of retail stores. In the recent years there have been a few e-commerce companies that have come up as well with domestic and foreign capital. So there is this conflict.

In this whole ecosystem of food production and supply and retail there are some fundamental conflicts that we need to be aware of, before we get into any kind of thinking about what should be done with the sector.

First of all is foreign vs. Indian; this is a conflict which is there the world over, and I think we will see that increase in Europe, in the US, and in other places. You know, “local versus foreign” is a conflict which we will keep seeing. I think we have moved a little bit away from that within, not only this government’s regime but also the earlier government’s regime, where we started to welcome foreigners back into the country and said, “let’s do trade together”.  I think it’s important to keep it in mind that local interests will always always be take predominance over foreign interests. If any government comes in and says, “I will give foreign interests precedence”, it’s going to not be there in power the next time, so that’s something which is to be kept in mind.

The second is this is a conflict between large and small…large retailers versus small retailers. A Reliance had to close shops in Uttar Pradesh, had to close shops in Kerala because they were impacting small retailers. So it’s not just about Walmart impacting small retailers, it’s also about the large Indian companies impacting smaller companies.

The third conflict is between traditional and modern, and this is happening again even in farming. Indian farmers tend to follow traditional practices, there are fragmented land holdings, and then you have modern entrepreneurial farmers, you have cooperatives which are adopting different techniques, and there is a conflict which happens at that level as well. At the local level it can get hugely political and then it starts raising barriers. So if you talk about the food supply chain, it’s not a simple thing to deal with.

Fourthly, the biggest biggest conflict – and that’s not really a conflict outright because these are people who are working together – but there are differences of interests and, therefore, there are conflicts…that is between retailer, supplier and the farmer, the interests are not aligned. A retailer wants lower prices, a supplier wants even lower prices, but the farmer wants higher yield and higher prices, so that conflict, just something on account of price and commercial terms and various other things, is bound to create friction in that supply chain.

Having understood that, I think we need to also acknowledge the fact that retailers are unlikely to invest in the supply chain and in farming. Amazon is not going to set up food processing. Amazon is not going to set up farms which are contract farming. Let’s face it, even Future Group hasn’t. Future Group has set up a food park. Future Group has taken over companies which are in food production companies but Future Group has has not set up, ground-up, contract farming. They’ve tried but it’s not their core competence, it’s not even their core interest. Reliance has done a little bit, ITC has done a few things but it’s not something which is fundamentally their business. They’re retailers, that’s what drives them, so what they can do is they can create an ecosystem.

Let’s take the example of McDonald’s or a Pizza Hut or say a Domino’s. These are foreign quick service restaurants which have come into the country. A McDonald’s had to actually build its supply chain from scratch to get the potato fries, to get the burgers done, to get the patties done and they created an ecosystem, in some cases they invested or co-invested with Indian partners, but in most cases they encouraged Indian partners to talk to their partners from Europe, US etc.

When we talk about people like Future Group, it has done a lot in being a platform for Indian companies to come on board and sometimes international companies as well. They’re a platform for them to launch and grow their business. So what the retailer can do is create the ecosystem, create the demand pipeline. Beyond that it is up to the food producer, it is up to the farmer, to take that opportunity and move on. It’s not for the retailer to handhold from scratch all the way to selling on the shelves.

In terms of the practices that we need to adopt I’d like to say this, that while we keep talking about international standards, food is a very local thing. We may be going into a world where 50 years down the line all of us will be having a white-gray powder which has no flavour and that’s what the future of food…I hope not!…The fact is the food is a very local thing because of tastes, because of cultures, because of the environment that you are in. And we are actually losing a lot. People who are here from farming, if you look back not, even very far – maybe 20-25 years – certainly, if you look back 50 years, what was being farmed we’ve lost probably 30-40 percent of that produce, because there is no demand, because it is difficult to grow, because it’s seasonal, because it is difficult to process,  difficult to sell. If you go to the sabziwala today versus if we went to the sabziwala 10 years ago, you will find that the variety of produce has actually diminished. So while we are talking about food processing, what is happening is…and I’d like to mention this…You know, sometimes we come to conferences like this and we run our businesses, we run with a split personality. We do what is convenient for the business, we do what is good for the business in terms of cost, in terms of ease of processing, in terms of ease of selling etc. When it comes to us as consumers, we want fresh, we want variety, we want flavor, we want colour, we want all of it. Why do we have the split personality? Why can’t we actually combine the two and do what is right for us as consumers, our children as consumers, the environment, and the future as well?

Sustainability is should be a big driver and we forget that the kind of food processing which is going on right now, by and large the kind of plants which are being put up, are based on technology which was developed in North America and Europe between 1900 and say 1960-70. That’s been the most wasteful part of the last century in terms of energy, in terms of water, in terms of labour, in terms of anything. It’s resource intensive. Now imagine even if 20% of India – over 200 million people – started to live and depend on that kind of a lifestyle and that kind of an industrial structure! This country will be finished, certainly! The world would be finished! We cannot do that, so we’ve got to do stuff which is good for us as consumers, the environment as a whole, and good for the business. It can’t just be one. We cannot be uni-dimensional in our thinking.

Last point: I think diversity is a very, very important part of the food supply chain and diversity means that there are “many”. We tend to look at large companies as being the standard and, therefore, large being good. But the fact is that if you take food which is an integral part of our lives…You cannot live without air, you can live without food and water for a few days, you can’t survive. You can live without clothes for your entire life.

If let’s say the food supply chain and even the processing, the acquisition and everything else, if it gets consolidated beyond a certain point it becomes extremely vulnerable. Anybody who’s looked at financial services risk management or any any kind of risk assessment, you would know that it is good to have a diversified basket. From the point-of-view of farming, from the point-of-view of manufacturing, from the point-of-view of retail, consolidation beyond a certain point is actually detrimental to quality and to safety. So if you’re looking at food safety, if you’re looking at sustainability, we need to actually encourage many, many, many entrepreneurs, many small businesses.

For that…I don’t know if anybody is there from the government sitting in this audience…but Make in India will only happen if we make it easier. Today all of us who are in business know that India is one of the most hostile environments to do business of any sort. It does not matter whether you are in manufacturing, whether you’re a truck driver, whether you are running a consulting business. With all the regulations…we don’t lack regulation, there’s too much regulation…we don’t have an environment where it is easy to do business. If that can happen we will find that we will have an extremely diverse and vibrant ecosystem which will grow and we can actually be the standard, the international standard which can be followed by everybody else. I think what we should do is try and get the government to work in that direction. If we can do that, if that’s one outcome we can achieve out of this conference I’ll be really, really, really happy.

Thank you so much!

Packaging – Uncovering Personality

Dominos India

Packaging of products is, undoubtedly, an extremely strong means of conveying the essence of the brand, its ethos and its personality.

Packaging is not only a vehicle to endorse the identity of a brand in a consumer’s mind, the growing need for sophisticated packaging also results from many lifestyle needs such as ease of transportation, storage, usage and disposability sought by convenience seeking and time pressed consumers.

But, increasingly, it also reflects the brand’s responsibility and sensitivity towards Nature and its resources.

If we, as consumers, were to reduce or optimize packaging from our daily lives, especially for food and beverages, there will be a redefinition of the processes involving our purchase and usage. It will also to a larger degree alter the systems and processes of organisations whose distribution and retail is integrally dependent on packaging.

Original Unverpackt, a concept grocery store in Berlin, Germany operates without food packaging that would later turn into garbage. The idea around which it is build is to bring one’s own containers and have it weighed. The supermarket will label your containers. After one shops and gets to the till, the weight of the containers is subtracted and one has to pay for the net weight of the groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so one may come back and skip the weighing process for a few more times. In this way, not only do the food products shed their familiar identifiers (brand colors, packaging structures, and bold logos) but the ways they move from shelf to home becomes radically different. While shoppers are encouraged to bring their own bags and containers with them, a range of re-usable jars and containers are also available for purchase onsite. As much as possible, produce is sourced locally.

At this point of time, it may seem difficult to adopt this framework in entirety. However we should remember that just a few short decades ago we followed similar practices such as engaging biodegradable, recyclable, reusable materials for packaging, making use of one’s own containers and bags and filling them in with quantities as per the requirements from the bulk containers.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) will be introducing mandatory requirements for companies to use sustainable resources in packaging and reduce packaging waste very soon. It is still being decided in what forms the regulations could be developed, but the preliminary ideas include requiring companies to submit annual reports on how much packaging they use, to develop waste reduction plans, or to meet recycling targets. Belgium on the other hand has been championing the cause of waste management by maximizing recycling and reusage.

The global trends are moving towards sustainable packaging given the ecological resource wastage it creates, the garbage the packaging material produces and the air and the ground water pollution the landfills create. Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, is arriving progressively earlier and earlier, indicating that the humanity’s resource consumption for the year is exceeding the earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that year.

Another very grim consequence that was witnessed is the frightening and highly visible impact on marine life – since the start of this year more than 30 sperm whales have been found beached around the North Sea in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Germany. After a necropsy of the whales in Germany, researchers found that four of the giant marine animals had large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. Although the marine litter may not have been the only cause of them being beached, it had a horrifying consequence on the health of these animals.

Given the serious consequences and the growing sensitivity towards these consequences, it is imperative for product manufacturers, raw material manufacturers and equipment and technology providers to design packaging with solemn intent to address sustainability.

The best time to reduce the use of packaging was 50 years ago. The next best time is now.

Carrying and Being Carried

Are you being carried, or are you carrying others?

To know the answer to that question, bear with me while I take you on a short mental journey through the emerging landscape of “ethical business” and to the stories at the end of this piece. (Okay, you can cheat and skip ahead, but I would really prefer you to read through the whole thing.)

For the most part sustainability and responsibility – or “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) to use the proper jargon – is seen as more relevant to the western economies, rather than the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil.

The pressure to do the ‘right thing’ is like a carpenter’s vice, whose one jaw is public opinion and the other is regulation, together squeezing ever tighter on corporate business. Clearly, there is a significant portion of customers in western markets who are vocal in expressing their opinions on business practices that are seen as wrong or unethical. On the other side, judicial implementation of regulations is also extremely stringent.

In fact, in the last 10-15 years CSR and sustainability have become far more important to top management in western economies since the real penalties in terms of negative impact on the brand and financial penalties through regulation and litigation are extremely high. Multi-billion dollar businesses certainly have much at risk, as demonstrated by well-documented PR disasters of large brands and retailers in the last decade or so. The variety of issues they have faced has covered sweatshop factories, child-labour, product safety, food adulteration and many others.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a steady increase in CSR initiatives, or at least an increase in initiatives that are labelled under the CSR umbrella. There is no doubt that there is good intent behind many CSR initiatives.

Some of these are focussed on improving the core business processes and practices of the company, and have measurable improvement goals that also have a positive impact beyond the company itself. These can truly be called socially-responsible corporate initiatives.

However, one can’t help but question many others which are fuzzy in their impact on both within the business and outside. The motivation of this type of initiative seems to be a two-pronged PR effort: firstly to get positive PR for “good work” mostly unrelated to the business and secondly, more importantly, to avoid negative PR for poor or questionable business practices in the company’s mainstream products or services.

Lest I sound too cynical about the corporate efforts, let me say this: there is also lack of clarity and agreement in non-corporate circles about what constitutes “corporate social responsibility” or “responsible business”. The label is relatively new to mainstream management thinking and very mutable. Social responsibility, ethical business, sustainability are all terms that are broad-based, used interchangeably, and are open to interpretation which can change with the context. (I wrote about this in an earlier column “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel” about 18 months ago.)

And that brings me to four separate incidents that happened recently, which are (in hindsight) neatly threaded together with a common thought process. (Thank you for your patience so far!)

The first was a discussion recently initiated by an international organisation about what could motivate Indian brands and retailers to make moves in the area of corporate responsibility, whether regulations needed to be tighter or whether it would be consumer pressure that would bring about a change. The underlying assumption – right or wrong – was that, as corporate entities, Indian retailers and brands were not sufficiently motivated to take significant and visible steps towards making their businesses more sustainable and socially responsible than their current state. The discussion was inconclusive, with many different, all potentially valid, points of view on the subject.

Very soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Gurcharan Das, the philosopher-author who, in his last corporate role, was Managing Director – Strategic Planning for Procter & Gamble worldwide. The dialogue primarily centred on his latest book: “The Difficulty of Being Good”. There was much debate and discussion on the wider consequence of individual actions and especially of those in positions of authority, highlighting the importance of individual choices.

A few days later, in a totally different context and with an entirely different person, the third incident occurred, when I was told an updated version of an old story to demonstrate the power of “a few good men” (and women). The story was as follows:

“50 people were travelling in a bus. Part-way through the journey, the weather suddenly turned stormy, with massive thunder and lightning bolts cracking all over the place. At times it seemed as if lightning would strike the bus and kill everyone on board. Then, someone proclaimed that there was someone on the bus whose end had come, who the lightning was seeking, and that it would be better for everyone else to get that person off the bus. The driver stopped the bus, and each person was sent off by turn, to go and touch a tree at a distance. 49 people got off the bus and returned unharmed after touching the tree. Then, as the last person got off and walked away from the bus, the bus was struck by a massive bolt of lightning.”

I thought this was a gruesome but effective moral science tale! During the next few hours I went about my activities, but kept mulling over the lesson(s) in that little story.

Then, that very afternoon, I got an email containing the following thought: “…when it looks like the whole place is going to implode – with pollution, disease, and war; famine, fatigue, and fright – there are still those who see the beauty. Who act with kindness. And who live with hope and gratitude. Actually, they carry the entire planet. (Mike Dooley)”

In looking back to the article 18-months ago, I closed the loop: it is the individual manager, who is also a citizen in a community, a consumer, and as a parent a stakeholder in future generations, who has to make the choices. His or her choices – both right and wrong – do have an impact beyond his or her own life and business. The so-called triple bottom line – profit, people (community) and planet (environment) – are irrelevant unless the first question is answered: “what does this mean for me?”

So as we go about our day, launching and growing brands, opening new stores, creating new products, I offer you this thought to reflect upon: are we carrying, or being carried? Is the bus safe because of us, or are we the ones the lightning is seeking?

[Go to the earlier post: “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel“, December 2008]

Who Wants Sustainable Fashion?

A few thoughts that I shared at the Sustainable Fashion Forum (Hong Kong, October 7, 2009):
  • Most people want to fit in rather than stand apart from their peers, so pushing sustainable or responsible fashion will need time – just like the typical fashion cycle, the first thrust needs to be on the innovators and early adopters (both consumers and companies), before the majority of the market picks up the trend.
  • We typically talk about the “triple-bottom line” – referring to the benefit to the business (profit), benefit to the environment and benefit to the community. However, I think most sustainability initiatives don’t gain enough traction because there is no bottom-line defined for the “individual”. The questions “how am I impacted?” and “what is in it for me?” need to be answered to really push fashion in the direction of sustainability.
  • “There is enough on this Earth for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed”. Fashion, by its very nature, lives on obsolescence, so it is pertinent to ask whether “sustainable fashion” is an oxymoron. However, there is some merit in questioning how extreme this sense of forcing obsolescence has become in the industry over the last few decades as companies have sought ever-growing top-lines. The entire industry ecosystem will need to be overhauled for it to become “sustainable”.
  • The cause of sustainability may be helped actually by the fragmentation of demand that is going on around the world. This fragmentation may be our inadvertent saviour. Since fashion is about the peaking and the decline of specific trends, with fragmentation there are lower peaks, less forced trending, less forced obsolescence and potentially less waste.
  • There was a mention of the concept of “fast fashion”. There are two aspects to it: one is the more visible rapid-change, low-price retail concept and that would certainly seem to be the antithesis of sustainability. However, there is another side to the fast fashion business model: lean management, efficient product development and reduced waste. The traditional fashion business model and supply chain can’t cope effectively with the fragmented demand and short selling-windows. In the fast fashion supply chain model, with shorter lead times, more time is spent on productive activities and successful products, rather than wasting resources and money in developing designs and flying samples back and forth for products that will get sold at a discount. Such waste would be fatal in the aerospace, automotive and high-tech industries – those industries use tools and processes that have also been available to the fashion industry for the last 4 decades. If fashion companies honestly examine how expensive that waste is, we might start moving towards more sustainable fashion.

 

Sustainable Fashion Forum (Oct 6, 09) (Hong Kong) - Devangshu Dutta, moderating a panel

Here is a summary of the Sustainable Fashion Forum, and some more pictures from the afternoon.

And here is a previous article on sustainability and corporate responsibility.

Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Babel

At the outset let me mention the fact that in the title of this post lies a Freudian slip. The intended title was “Corporate Responsibility – Beyond Labels”. But the new – unintended – title captures the thought perfectly. (And I’ll come back to that in closing.)

Third Eyesight was recently asked by a multi-billion dollar global consumer brand to facilitate a round-table discussion focussing on the issue of how to drive ethical behaviour and sustainable business models into their sector. This company has a well documented strategy and action plan until 2020, and their team was travelling together in India visiting other corporate and non-corporate initiatives, to learn from them.

For the round table, we brought together brands, retailers, manufacturers, compliance audit and certification agencies, craft and community oriented organisations and non-government organisations (NGOs working on environment stewardship. Some were intrinsically linked to the consumer goods / retail sector, others were not. Among those present was Ramon Magsaysay award winner Mr. Rajendra Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organisation that has, over the last several years, worked in recharging thousands of water reservoirs leading to the rebirth of several rivers.

The diversity (and sometimes total divergence) in views among the participants was a powerful driver for the debate during the day, which was the main intention behind having a really mixed group.

(Try this experiment yourself. Get a bunch of people together who define their work as being in the “corporate responsibility” stream. Then ask them the meaning of that phrase, and watch the entirely different tracks people move on. You might be left wondering, whether they are really working towards a common goal.)

At the end, though, the result was productive, since the divergent perspectives opened avenues that may have previously not been visible.

In the case of our discussion, the topics that were covered included labour standards and compliance, reduction of the product development footprint, closed-loop supply chains, water management, organic raw materials, energy conservation and community involvement in business. Some of the issues raised were:

  • How are learnings from green factories consolidated and disseminated to other suppliers?
  • How do companies plan to continue to support sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives considering the drastic economic changes and the dire retail scenario?
  • What does fair trade have to do with sustainability?
  • Minimum wage Vs living wage
  • Trade barriers and the need for government support for green products
  • Why labour laws are not being followed? Are the laws outdated and impossible to follow? Are there any other reasons, which could be dealt with by companies themselves?
  • Can consumer consciousness and pressures be brought to bear? Does the question “Is the product I am buying ethically produced” come in the mind of an Indian consumer? Or even to the mind of the Indian retailer?
  • The need to address the core issue of unbalanced demand and supply of workforce in cities.
  • What should responsible and aware companies do to stop other companies from polluting rivers and water systems?
  • The role of village craft in providing learnings on efficient and responsible use of resources

My view is that these diverse areas and views can be aligned most effectively if we look at responsibility and sustainability in all its dimensions. These dimensions, to my mind, are:

– The Environment

– The Community

– The Organisation

– The Individual

Most corporate responsibility / sustainability initatives end up addressing only one of the dimensions to focus and simplify the action-points. However, the reality is that there are many areas where the Environment, the Community and the Organisation overlap with each other – many a time, when you ignore the interaction between these dimensions, you get totally divergent opinions. And the point of view related to your own history, geography and experiences, further colour the opinion. The individual – “I” – as a citizen, as a corporate manager, as a parent of future generations, or in any other role, is at the overlap of all three external dimensions. That should tell us something about where the action needs to be initiated.
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The Individual and the External Dimensions of Corporate Responsibility, Community, CSR, fairtrade, labour

(Post continuing from above.)

Here is a suggested list to start with, which we can use to try out thought-experiments, viewing each issue in different dimensions and from different points of view (for example, buyer based in a developed market, supplier based in a developing country, an individual working in the supply chain, his family and broader community):

  • child / family labour
  • fair pricing and fair compensation across the supply chain, including consumer, retailer, supplier, workers
  • replacement of cottage scale production with large-scale industrial production of goods
  • setting up production in cities versus in villages
  • organic versus inorganic
  • synthetic / genetically modified versus natural raw materials

In closing, let me come back to “Babel”. According to the Book of Genesis, a huge tower was built “to the heavens” to demonstrate the achievement of the people of Babylon who all spoke a single language, and to bind them together into a common identity. God apparently was not particularly happy with this self-glorifying attitude, and gave the people different languages and scattered them across the earth. 

Whatever your religious (or non-religious) affiliation, this story holds a gem of a lesson.

No matter how noble the cause of the corporate responsibility warrior, it is good to be humble and allow diversity rather than trying to capture everyone under one monolith with an apparently common goal. The diversity may be a lot more productive and help to spread the benefits wider than one single initiative.

The day that we spent on the sustainability round-table certainly demonstrated that very well.

Less Could Be More

For all those who have admired the consistency and presentability of produce in western supermarkets, here’s proof that tough times really focus us on substance and force us to look beyond skin-deep beauty.

Even in fruits and vegetables.

British supermarket Sainsbury has challenged European Union guidelines that restrict the sales of fruits by certain physical standards. Sainsbury’s is questioning EU regulations that prevent selling “ugly” fruit and vegetables. Due to EU regulations such as size of cauliflower (minimum 11 cm diameter) and the shape of carrots (requirement that there should be a single root, not multiple), Sainsbury estimates that up to one-fifth of what is produced in British farms cannot be sold in the supermarket. According to Sainsbury’s estimate, not following these regulations can help to reduce prices by up to 40%, and reduce wastage by up to 20%. The retailer is also trying to drum up customer support by running an online poll (94% responses were in favour of Sainsbury’s move, at the time this column was being written).

So less beauty could mean more veggies in the supermarket, and more money in everyone’s pocket including, hopefully, the farmer.

And this may also vindicate anyone who has complained that the beautiful veggies and fruits in western supermarkets taste inferior to their “ugly” counterparts sold on Asian hand-carts. Give us more substance and less style, any day.

Let’s look at some other substantial issues that merchants should consider.

Remember “I can’t get no satisfaction”? That’s what Mick Jagger and his mates in the Rolling Stones hit the world in the face with in 1965, allegedly in response to the rampant commercialism they had seen in the US.

After 43 years – at least judging by the modern supermarket shelves – apparently we still ain’t getting no satisfaction. In fact, the array of choice tends towards “overload”.

A typical developed country supermarket is estimated to carry over 40,000 SKU’s. Can you think of 40,000 types of items (or even 10,000) that you would need from the supermarket for your home?

So here’s the result. During my travels, if I’m in a store that is unfamiliar I could spend over an hour wheeling a trolley around before reaching the checkout. The first 5-10 minutes are focussed on figuring out the aisles based on my list. The next 10 minutes are spent picking what is actually on my list. And the rest of the time before the checkout is usually spent browsing through the thousands of SKU’s and picking stuff that we never knew we needed when the family made the shopping list.

Now, the guys who run the supermarkets are generally a smart bunch – they’ve figured that the more options you put in front of consumers, the more they buy. My cash receipts are proof of that. But, as American professor and author Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) says, the point where the choice becomes counter-productive is already well-past in developed markets.

With such overwhelming choice, consumers get into analysis-paralysis. And even after they finally purchase something out of the enormous range, you get shades of post-purchase dissonance. Only, in this case the dissonance, the dissatisfaction is not related to a bad product, but: “What if there I had made another choice? What if there was a better product than this? What if there was something available for less?”

During these times, it is pertinent to also put this in the context of business costs. There is surely a cost of providing that humongous choice in supermarkets. Have we considered what the saving could be, if the variety was reduced, if the product range was consolidated?

Consider the time (and therefore cost) spent on product mix and pricing decisions – surely merchandising teams have to be larger if you have a larger product mix, since each person can only handle a finite workload. Consider the cost of logistics of handling a widely diversified range. Consider the efficiencies lost in diverse production mix. So, does the consumer really need, really even want all that choice?

Retailers like the German chain Aldi raise precisely those questions. Aldi sells about 1,100 SKUs compared to the usual 40,000. And it claims that the typical shopping basket in Aldi’s UK stores is 25% less than competing supermarkets.

Indian retailers, of course, are possibly yet to reach that pain threshold of choice. There are possibly some potentially useful choices that are still missing. But even here, it is well worth taking a hard look at the product offering. With availability levels that can dip as low as 50-60%, it is probably worth asking – what if we dropped XYZ product from our range? Would it really hurt our sales or even our image; or would it help us to focus better on the products that really matter?

If we took our attention away from building such false choices, could the business become more profitable and therefore more sustainable?

The US and European markets are often the source of many a management thought and business model related to consumer products and retail, and of “best practices”.

So, in closing, I should share this question someone asked me recently: “when do you think consumer spending will bounce back in the US?” My first response was, “If only I had a crystal ball”. But the next thought in my mind was what if US consumers actually came to a decision that they had “enough”? What if their excessive consumption was no longer the role model for consumers in emerging economies? What if, instead, the frugal consumers of India and China became the global role model?

What would your business model look like then? Would your corporate be more socially responsible? And would it have a better chance of lasting longer?

For those who are interested in taking this inquiry even further, I can recommend John Naish (“Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More”, 2008), John Lane, Satish Kumar, M. K. Gandhi, Alan Durning (“How Much is Enough?”), or any number of ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek or Roman schools of thought, many of them pigeonholed into “religious” or spiritual categories.

You might also like this video of a talk by Barry Schwartz on Ted.com (below).

Do please share the results of your inquiry with us, too.

Are Your Deals Still in the Fridge?

If you’re like me, then at any given point of time you have a vague idea about what is in your refrigerator, but not quite. That must why we end up buying stuff that duplicates what is already in the fridge.

Here’s an example of what that translates into for me:

  • A second bottle of chilly sauce, when the first one is only half-way through
  • Three semi-consumed jars of jams and preserves, none of which look anywhere near finishing for the next couple of months
  • Three packs of juice because one came “free” with two others (and all open because the family does not coordinate its consumption of flavours!)

At other times, it is the semi-consumed half-loaf of bread that gets trashed half-way through its fossilization process. Or the new flavour of cheese spread, where the price offer may have been tastier than the spread itself.

I sure there will be at least some among you who would have similar stories. (I would be shattered if I’m told that I am the only one with these tales of inadvertent consumption!)

In the normal course, we would not call ourselves excessive consumers. For the most part, we believe we display rational shopping behaviour. We make our lists before leaving for the market and we generally know which shop or shops we want to stop in at. So, why do we end up doubling or trebling our purchases, when we aren’t actively “consuming” double or triple the amount of food?

Well, the lords of marketing spin have mapped their way into our minds. In a strategy that has been proven over centuries, we are offered things ‘free’ or at a significant discount. The very thought of getting something for free, or for less than what it is worth, is so seductive and irresistible.

(As an aside, just look at what has happened during the last few years in the real estate market and the stock market – everyone thought that they were getting a good deal because the stuff was “worth actually more” than the amount they were paying. Not!)

We believe we are being rational in buying the three packs of juice at the price of two – never mind the fact that juice wasn’t on the shopping list in the first place. The danglers and end-caps jump out and ambush us, as we walk through the aisles. The samplers entice in their small voices: “try me”.

You might say that the really traditional kiranawala is the customer’s greatest friend and also a barrier against uncontrolled consumption.

By keeping the merchandise behind the counter or in the back-room, he maintains a healthy distance between the addiction source and all us potential shopaholics. In fact, he goes beyond the call of duty, and even prevents us from stepping anywhere near the merchandise by delivering to our homes.

The enticing deals and offers that you can’t see won’t hurt you. You won’t call to get that new, exciting BOGO (buy one-get one) offer, because you don’t know that it’s there in the store.

Unless, of course, the sneaky brand with its accomplice – the advertising agency – sidesteps him, and puts out the temptation in your morning newspaper.

By now, surely, you’re wondering whose side I am on.

Well, as a consumer and a customer, I am only on one side – mine!

As someone who is intensively involved with the retail sector, I’m also on the side of the brands and the retailers.

And believe me, we are all actually sitting on the same side of the table.

The years in this decade, after the recovery from the minor blip of dot-com busts, have been like one mega party and most people have forgotten that parties seldom last forever. And the morning after the wild party can start with quite a headache.

Retailers and brands have recently acted as if there is no end to multiplier annual growth rates, and consumers have been only to happy to prove them right. Until now.

Currently, we are passing through a fairly serious global economic correction which started in 2007. But it has only really hit hard in the last couple of months, as the headlines have increasingly started talking about recessions and depressions. Naturally, there are some people who have really lost money, others may be looking at the possibility of lower income. But even those people who sustain their current incomes are “feeling poor”, just as they were “feeling wealthy” when the markets were booming.

Of course, superfluous or discretionary expenditure such as movies in multiplexes, eating out etc. are the first to get hit. But should grocery retailers rest easy – after all, people still have to eat, right?

And how about deals, and multi-buy discounts – isn’t this the scenario where “more for less” will be the strategy which will work?

Well, I don’t believe it is quite so cut-and-dried, or quite so simple. The grocery shopping lists will not only become tighter, but will also be more tightly adhered to. Anything that looks like it may be a wasteful expense will be unlikely.

Remember the deals in the fridge? What you are throwing away now starts looking like money being put into the trash.

Pardon the seemingly sexist remark, but men: your wives will not let you get away with driving your trolleys irresponsibly into aisles where you are not supposed to be!

So how should retailers and brands respond?

Well, a good starting point would be to understand what the real market is. Let us not infinitely extrapolate growth figures on a excel spreadsheet on the basis of the early-years of new businesses. Let us not extrapolate national demand numbers from the consumption patterns of select suburbs of Delhi and Mumbai.

When we have the numbers right, let’s look at the business fundamentals at those basic levels of consumption. Is there a viable business model?

Is the business full of productive resources, or are we overstaffed with “cheap Indian labour”?

Is your modern retail business or your food / FMCG brand really providing value to the Indian consumer? For instance, two very senior people from large retail companies were very vocal this last weekend in stating that the value provided by local business to the value-conscious consumer was grossly underestimated by the industry.

I believe that best filter for business plans is the filter of business sustainability. How sustainable is the business over the next few years? What is the real demand? What are the true cost structures, and can these be supported on an inflationary basis year-on-year, or will you be squeezing the vendors for more margin at every stage until the relationship goes into a death spiral?

Let’s look at macro-economics. Are you actively looking at generating and spreading wealth and income around, or is your focus only on stuffing that third pack of juice into the fridge for it to go stale? If your strategy is the latter one then, to my mind, that is neither a sustainable economic model nor a sustainable business.

There’s more about the current and developing economic scenario, “realistic retailing” and other such issues, elsewhere on the Third Eyesight website and blog, including a presentation made at the CII National Retail Summit in November 2006 (download or read as a PDF). (The article based on that presentation is here.)

I really look forward to your thoughts and would welcome a dialogue on how you believe retailers and brands should work through the next few years as we unravel the excesses of the recent past.

Can industrial agriculture be sustained?

A few days ago, I wrote about the possible “Dis-economy of Scale”, when we start to add up the hidden costs in industrial agriculture.

I’ve just found an interesting article from Fortune about Jason Clay, described as a “thinking environmentalist”.

He calls for intensification of agriculture, and “economies of scale”. However, the critical departure from usual proponents of industrial farming, his view is to make agriculture “both more productive and sustainable” (i.e. “generating more output from fewer inputs”).

I wonder if that means using truly fewer inputs through the entire chain. That is really the key, since the current intensive and industrial model of farming actually seems to use more input (fuel and production) calories to produce fewer output (food) calories. Unless that changes, the model of industrial agriculture is unsustainable over time.

(The earlier post is here: The Dis-Economy of Scale)

And while we are on the subject of sustainability, it’s always good to remember that human beings haven’t suddenly become rapacious in the industrial and post-industrial age. We’ve displayed similar behaviour of overdoing things over centuries – a good book to pick up is Jared M. Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. (Here’s his profile on Wikipedia, and book on Amazon).