Indian production company Never Ending Story is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Indian market. As part of the relationship its founder Amitabh Bhattacharya and LBB explore what makes India’s advertising industry tick. Here Amitabh shares his thoughts on sustainability in India’s production and advertising scenes.
Sustainability is the hot topic of the moment everywhere you look across the globe, from big Earth Day campaigns to general chat about being more green, environmentally friendly and practicing plastic-free living. Though this topic can differ from country to country, depending on who you’re talking to and what their society thinks of when the topic of ‘sustainability’ comes to mind.
India is one country that has an interesting handle on sustainability, with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals
stating that “the Government of India will continue to work collaboratively with all domestic and global stakeholders to accelerate efforts for a sustainable planet for future generations.”
To hear more about what Indian advertising has done - and can do - to be sustainable in production, LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Never Ending Story’s founder, Amitabh Bhattacharya to hear his experiences of living and working sustainably.
LBB> When you were growing up in India, was the topic of sustainability ever touched upon?
Amitabh> When I was growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, India was a poor, young country. The word ‘consumerism’ was not a part of the common lexicon, we did not have branded clothing; the neighbourhood tailor was also the designer and owning a television was considered a luxury few could afford. You would see only two models of cars on the Indian roads: Ambassador (an avatar of Morris Oxford Series III model) and Premier Padmini. All luxury cars were imported and owned by a privileged few, they were what would be referred to now as ‘gas guzzlers’, but that didn’t matter then- no one knew any better.
Plastic was still a novelty. Our shopping bags were mostly made of cloth or jute [a natural fibre used for making gunny bags]. The local neighbourhood grocer used bags made of recycled newspaper and old clothes were bartered for new steel kitchen utensils. Leftover food was set aside for those less fortunate and unable to feed themselves.
It was a very different India then; life was simple and aspirations were limited. Most Indians were happy to survive. Sustenance had a very different meaning then.
LBB> The global conversation around being sustainable has accelerated greatly in recent years, what have your experiences in India been?
Amitabh> To be honest, I have yet to see a man-made solution that is truly sustainable. Take plastic - it is a critical component in the production of almost everything. It is one component that makes many things affordable for the masses. In India, for years governments have been trying to impose a ban on plastic, yet it hasn’t really made much of a difference. Government laws and legislations always leave loopholes for plastic product manufacturers to slip through. Today, there is a ban on single use plastic though I wonder, is recycled plastic any safer?
In terms of the automotive industry, diesel cars older than certain years are to be scrapped. Where will these cars go? Governments and automobile companies are encouraging us to use electric vehicles which depend heavily on rare metals. Do we know what impact converting rare metals into usable resources has on our environment? Forget India, the entire world is going around in circles with sustainability.
It is true that in recent times conversations around sustainability and climate change have gathered momentum but the question is are they reaching enough people and in a way a common man can understand?
LBB> Is there an awareness of sustainability in India as a whole?
Amitabh> The importance of coexistence is well documented in our ancient scriptures, but it is hardly practiced in modern India. Sustainability is not a topic that we talk about at the dinner table.
That said, there are efforts being made both by the government and NGOs especially at the grassroots level. One of the more visible movements is the Paani Foundation
, an initiative started by actor Amir Khan.
LBB> You've been in the Indian production industry long enough to see trends come and go. For you, what does Indian production being 'sustainable' mean?
Amitabh> I have not seen or heard of any concrete steps taken by our industry in India to become ‘sustainable’. There are many reasons for that; as a society we Indians are used to recycling things. Many things we use have a second life: newspapers become paper bags, sarees become quilts, old Harleys become Harley rickshaws.
Similar practices exist in our industry too; sets material are often reused; plastic bottles are reused; retired buses are converted into make-up vans. Though this is more to do with saving money than saving planet earth... it serves the purpose.
To make film production a sustainable business in India, we need to create awareness among the crew, which mostly comprises undereducated daily-wagers who have little time or interest to worry about anything other than their livelihood and family. The responsibility of creating that awareness rests on producers and industry bodies.
LBB> How easy is any of this to implement?
Amitabh> It is always hard to sell an idea that doesn’t come with instant rewards. Besides, implementing certain practices comes at a price. While individual companies may be doing their bit, it needs a collective effort of all stakeholders (including advertisers and platforms) to take this issue of sustainability in production seriously. We don’t have any kind of a regulatory framework yet.
LBB> Sustainable production was becoming a big topic before Covid, now the pandemic has forced the industry to adopt practices like remote production – what do you think the future holds for green production?
Amitabh> Remote production is the need of the hour. But green production needs long-term sustainable planning. The production industry doesn’t work in isolation, no industry does.
A production’s carbon footprint is not limited to the way we conduct our shoots. There are too many external factors that are beyond our control. From the number of clients/agencies travelling for shoots to, city traffic, personalised service for important collaborators and stakeholders and audacious expectations of celebrity talents… the list is way too long.
LBB> How have you pivoted working during the pandemic to shooting remotely? And will this continue in the future?
Amitabh> We have tried remote shooting, which comes with its challenges. You have limited interactions and instructions often get lost in translation. Besides, everyone misses the sideline conversations, the craft service, the set catering, the wrap parties. Is such a clinical environment good for the evolution of our industry? Only time will tell.
LBB> What are your thoughts on 'greenwashing'?
Amitabh> This is a subject for industry watchdogs and conspiracy theorists to indulge in! We’re drowned in a deluge of information which is impossible for most people to comprehend.
We buy products and services labelled organic, biodegradable, sustainable, recyclable and so on and so forth hoping that there is some truth in the makers' claims. I don’t blame these ‘environment friendly’ companies. They sell something far more valuable than their products: they sell us virtues. For a world suffering from serious virtue deficiency these products and services act like vitamin pills - we don’t know much about their efficacy but they make us feel good.
LBB> Why do you think India is so significant when we talk about sustainability?
Amitabh> In the context of sustainability, I don’t think India is more significant than any other country. It is a challenge for the entire human race.
Every aboriginal society in the world understood the values of sustainability and coexistence. They realised the importance of sustainable living thousands of years ago. But such was the arrogance of modern man that he trashed all those values as mumbo-jumbo.
India has different challenges. Sustainable living is woven into the fabric of our society but we are ignoring those values. We need to practice what we preach. We need to make it a part of our social and political discourse.
LBB> When on set there's often a huge amount of people, big buffets and plenty of cars ferrying people around. This of course does nothing for sustainability, can and will this change?
Amitabh> The pandemic has shown us that with all its challenges remote shooting is a viable option. As much as I take pride in the craft and catering services we provide on our sets, I have never been able to find a good reason to justify the cost. If you look at the numbers closely, a good amount of money is spent on making clients and agencies feel ‘comfortable’. This has been the tradition and can only be changed through dialogues with all stakeholders.
LBB> Can brands and agencies afford to be sustainable in India - or is it a luxury?
Amitabh> People who run brands and agencies are smart and intelligent people. They specialise in the art of persuasion. If they wish not only can they make their own businesses more sustainable, they can even convince you and me to get our act together. The moot question is do they have the will?