The trend of more emerging-market consumers demanding Western products raises questions of how to instill a sense of environmental awareness
Whether in the corporate boardroom, supermarket aisles or on the farm, discussion is growing over a key question facing the planet _ how can mankind balance its relentless demand for resources from an increasingly overstretched environment?
Companies, consumers and communities alike have increasingly sought to understand and adopt the principles of sustainable development to balance the demands posed by the "three pillars" of society, economy and environment.
But Asian consumers in general remain sceptical of paying any premium for "green", meaning a different approach towards sustainability may be needed in the region, say marketing experts.
"In 20 years' time, in 15 years ... the [sustainability] message will become more important in Asia. But right now, [consumers] don't see the importance," said V.P. Sharma, chief executive of the Indonesian retailer PT Mitra Adiperkasa Tbk.
"There are definitely different degrees of priorities between the developed world and emerging-world consumers."
Speaking at a session on Asian consumers at last week's World Economic Forum in Bangkok, he said the sustainability commitments made by multinational companies such as Marks and Spencer or Starbucks have gone mostly unappreciated in the Asian market.
"Consumers care about discounts, not environmental friendliness," said Mr Sharma.
Joost Geginat, a managing partner of Singapore's Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, said even with rising disposable income, Asian consumers will remain pragmatic and value shoppers.
"We all agree that sustainable consumption is important. But how do you engage the Asian consumer?" he said.
"You either have to bring additional value which justifies a price premium or have the same product which is sustainable on top."
Mr Geginat said another challenge is meeting the scepticism of consumers in whether corporate commitments to sustainability are worthy of trust.
"You hear a lot about sustainability. But is it really green? Companies need to spend time to inform and educate consumers," he said.
Uwe Raschke, a management board member of the German engineering and electronics giant Robert Bosch, agreed consumers are fundamentally driven by convenience and price.
"In the developed countries, consumers say they have a commitment to green. But there is a gap between what they should do and what they really do," he said.
"At the end of the day, the products must speak for themselves."
Affordability is key, said Mr Raschke.
"What would a young Burmese consumer think about an environmentally friendly product against the same product that does the same but is 20% cheaper? The answer is clear," he said.
Educating consumers about sustainability should start in school.
"Kids are very open and very sensitive to these issues. We need to help create a base for the future," said Mr Raschke.
Harish Manwani, chief operating officer of the consumer products giant Unilever in the UK, said companies had a responsibility to support growth and sustainability together.
"You have to recognise that growth is needed. Countries need growth, companies need growth. Growth is what is needed to lift standards of living," he said.
"But if everyone in the developing world consumed like the developed world, we would need three planets. And if they consumed like the US consumer, then we would need five planets."
Mr Manwani said Unilever's philosophy was growth had to be "decoupled" from any environmental impact, and brands can be at the "forefront of social change".
"Two billion people consume our brands. When they buy a bar of soap, or a shampoo, or a soup ... if we ensure that these are sustainable and you multiply this by 2 billion, you can change the world," he said.
"Little actions can make a big difference."
But sustainable production processes or supply chains mean little without value and quality.
"For instance, we have now pledged to source all our palm oil from sustainable sources. Does it make a difference to consumers? If you don't give a great bar of soap, it doesn't matter," said Mr Manwani.
He said companies should think beyond the sustainability of their production to how better to engage communities positively.
Mr Manwani said Unilever's campaigns to encourage consumers to wash their hands "probably saves more lives than the pharma company selling sophisticated drugs. That's sustainability. The act of doing business, of satisfying consumers and making a difference in the world."
Nhat Vuong suggested companies use social media and "gamification" to engage consumers to contribute to society.
He is the founder and chief executive of i-Kifu, a Japanese company that uses the internet and social networks to link non-profit organisations, companies and consumers.
Gamification uses the thinking strategies of games to engage consumers, said Mr Vuong.
He said dhamma points are earned through online games for volunteer work, charitable contributions or purchases of eco-friendly goods in a way that makes social contribution "addictive".
"It's how we can use the selfishness of each consumer against him to make him contribute to society," said Mr Vuong.
"Young kids already play lots of video games. It doesn't have to be time wasted. It can also be time contributing to society."
Unilever's Mr Manwani said the values of corporate social responsibility and sustainability must be "embedded" in one's business.
"People don't necessarily buy because of sustainability. But in a connected world, [the lack of] sustainability might be the reason why people don't buy your brands," he said.
Mr Raschke from Robert Bosch said governments also had a strong role in helping to create incentives for consumers to be more environmentally friendly such as tax benefits for fuel-efficient cars.
"What will be the growth model for the future? There are 6 billion people in emerging markets who want the same benefits that developed consumers have. What can we do without destroying the planet?" he said.
By Chiratas Nivatpumin
07 June 2012