Hiking on pollution scale
Pollution in Vietnam has reached a whole new level during the last decade, with Hanoi becoming the most polluted city in Southeast Asia (Thanh Nien News 2012). It is in the news, as well as in the annual environment report, but more evidently, it is right there in front of our eyes. Driving along any big boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City at any given time of the day, the scene of black and white smog blanketing our city is no longer an alien to many inhabitants. All kinds of pollution are leaching into our everyday life. Various sectors in Vietnamese society have noticed and decided to take action. Last year, Saigon Times published a special issue on sustainable development in Vietnam, covering a wide range of topics from green energy to waste treatment across the country. Corporates have begun to switch to green mode as there is an increasing demand from the Vietnamese market (Dung 2012). Their counterparts around the world have become more environmental-friendly, or at least try to look a little greener, which creates the demand to communicate the new green image to the consumers. How big is this green movement in Vietnam? How do advertising agencies in the country cope with this change? A few weeks ago I contacted Huy Nguyen, Senior Art Director at Y&R Vietnam to have some insights about this topic from him.
Venturing into creative industry
Y&R Vietnam is an advertising agency, a part of Y&R global network headquartered in New York, whose branches exist in almost every country. Despite being one of the major advertising agencies in the world, Y&R in Vietnam is quite small compared to others such as Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy, or LOWE (Nguyen 2013). Advertising agencies when expand to one country often continue the relationship with their global clients who also invest into that country. As a result, Saatchi & Saatchi and Dentsu have Toyota as their global client, thus they take over the communication for Toyota in Vietnam as well. LOWE is also really big because they establish a long-term relationship with Unilever, whereas Y&R’s global clients in Vietnam are not as active nor as plentiful. Moreover, Y&R doesn’t have many local clients either, therefore it is quite small.
Huy started his career in the creative industry five years ago when he first moved to Vietnam. Before working for Y&R, Huy was a Senior Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi for four years. He has been a Senior Art Director at Y&R for one year, where he leads a team together with the Senior Copywriter to come up with ideas for an ad campaign, of which he manages the look and feel. He also oversees the production of the campaign before all the materials are released.
No shade of green
Having been working for two advertising agencies during the past five years, Huy admitted that he didn’t see much of green practice at both Saatchi & Saatchi and Y&R. There was no policy regarding recycling, although Saatchi & Saatchi had a recycling box for report and review print ad, etc., but no one actually used it. Sometimes employees were reminded to turn off their computer to save energy, but only a few did so. Nonetheless, no one told anyone why they should recycle or save electricity. There seemed to be a lack of educational activities on saving and recycling resources at these agencies.
In 2009, while still at Saatchi & Saatchi, Huy helped developing a project called “Go Green” to present the corporate image of Toyota as being environmental-friendly, with activities such as recycling and saving electricity (Toyota Motor Vietnam 2010). Despite working on a project to change behaviour towards the environment, the agency itself never adopted such green policies. It appears to me that the eco-friendly mindset doesn’t really exist yet and advertising agencies merely work on the request of their client. Would the message be effective anymore if the target audience found out those who told them to protect the environment in reality didn’t do so?
Sustainability – cost or opportunity?
From Huy’s perspective, environmental issues are not an urgent concern in Vietnam, where people still struggle to survive, that is, to satisfy physiological and safety needs, the very basic levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (Bilash 2009). Sustainability to many is still a strange concept; and to those who already know about it, it is seen as a luxury. The irony is developing countries struggling to survive tend to waste more resources than developed countries. Being poor, then, shouldn’t be the cause of unsustainable way of living, while the other way around is more likely to be true. Strangely, people still have not learned that truth. There is a lack of education on sustainable practice nationwide. Sustainability is often thought of as recycling, which requires certain facilities, rather than saving, which requires basically nothing; and that’s why it is still seen as a cost rather than an opportunity.
Huy remembered that saving paper was a common practice at Saatchi & Saatchi, where they usually tried to print on both sides. The purpose was to save operational cost, but that’s a clear example of how sustainability can be done without sacrificing profit. Perhaps we just didn’t think about what we could do to save resources often enough. Huy suggested that many companies were still not aware of the consequences of unsustainable practice.
In an authoritarian country like Vietnam, it is not so difficult for the government to implement environmental policy, just like how they did with the helmet campaign. Huy remembered that when wearing helmet was enforced by law, the next day everyone wore their helmet on the street. The Singaporean government used the same enforcement regarding littering and smoking on the island. In countries like the United States, politicians often compromise the environment for economic growth, if they want to be reelected for the next term. Four years are not enough to see any fruitful result from environmental policies, but people can see the hike in fiscal spending immediately if sustainable programs are implemented. That’s never the case in a country like Vietnam. People may complain, but that’s all they can do.
Huy believed that, very soon, there will be more green projects sprouting as international pressure on environmental issues increases and more foreign companies invest in Vietnam. In the mean time, we all need to educate ourselves and those around us about the importance of sustainability.
By Lieu Anh Vu
Word count: 1090
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