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Plastic waste: Why brands need to look beyond the PR opportunity

Over the past few weeks brand have lined up to commit to tackling the issue of plastic waste. Iceland’s bold decision to pledge to go plastic-free with its own brand products was front page news, while McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Evian have all promised to overhaul packaging and Diageo and Costa are among many big names phasing out the use of plastic straws. But why now?

“I just think its reached a bit of a tipping point on plastic,” Iceland’s marketing director Mel Matson tells Marketing Week. “I’m sure there will have been surprise that Iceland was the one to announce but we have a history of doing the right thing. That’s what this was for us, it’s about doing the right thing but also letting people know we are.”

With consumers more engaged about plastic than ever before, there is clearly a PR opportunity for brands. BBC documentary Blue Planet II raised consumer understanding of the issue, with 10.3 million watching David Attenborough outline the problems facing marine ecosystems if the problem continues.

Iceland found this when it surveyed 5,000 people ahead of its decision to go plastic free. Of those surveyed, 80% said that they were in favour of the retailer getting rid of plastic.

Louise Edge, oceans plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, tells Marketing Week: “There has been an unprecedented rise in concerns about plastic, with shocking images and statistics I think [brands] are starting to wake up to the problem as people are more worried than ever.”

David Croft, global sustainable development director of Diageo agrees. He tells Marketing Week: “I certainly think the fantastic increase in conversation around plastics is helping to focus both businesses and consumers on this important subject.”

Not only is there rising consumer concern, but scientific developments mean there are now viable single-use plastic alternatives, as well as better and more efficient ways of recycling plastic.

For example, Bulldog Skincare for Men has developed sugarcane packaging, that it is using instead of plastic. Not only does this get rid of the issue of plastic waste, but sugarcane saves carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

Simon Duffy, the company’s founder, says this is just another way brands can tackle plastic waste: “You’ve got to get people to reuse stuff and create a behaviour; you’ve got to recycle better by stopping plastics being put into the waste stream and getting out into the natural environment; and finally decouple plastic from fossil fuel origins.”

The business case for reducing plastic waste

While many brands will see trying to reduce plastic waste as the right thing to do, there is also a financial benefit. Brands including Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have seen a reduction in costs by reducing how much plastic they use.

Plus consumers are expecting more from brands, with research suggesting that firms that focus on sustainability outperform those that don’t. For example, Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for 60% of the company’s growth in 2016, and they grew more than 50% faster than the rest of the business.

“We are now living in an age where consumers expect more than just a transactional relationship from the brands they do business with,” says Julia Shepherd, board director of Real World Insights at MediaCom North.

It has to be clear to consumers that the brand purpose is interwoven with the brand’s DNA.

Julia Shepherd, MediaCom North

Millennials are even more conscious of the environmental impact of what they are buying. MediaCom’s research found that 49% of consumers are willing to pay more for a brand or product that supports a cause that is important to them, rising to 60% of those aged 18 to 24

“Consumers want a brand whose beliefs coincide with their own,” adds Shepherd.

MediaCom’s research also found that one in three people have bought a brand specifically because of its values or behaviours. Two in three consumers feel that brands have a responsibility to give back to society, and over half have bought a brand or stopped using a brand because of that brand’s behaviour or values.

Bulldog’s Duffy says that this research rings true in skincare. “From a commercial perspective, people and consumers are rewarding companies that take a positive stand by opting to buy their products,” he explains. “We’ve been doing that for 10 years but we are starting to see it more front and centre for people in what they demand from brands.”

Making a long-term commitment

Despite all the positive reasons for focusing on sustainability, brands should be wary that mixing brand purpose with a sales message can backfire. Companies need to ensure that sustainability is not just a one-time PR opportunity but part of a longer term plan.

Shepherd says: “It has to be clear to consumers that the brand purpose is, to a degree, interwoven with the brand’s DNA. Tesla is a good example of this, at the heart of its business is the mission to popularise sustainable transport by making electric cars that appeal to the masses.”

Diageo revealed last month that it would phase out the use of plastic straws and stirrers from all its offices, events, promotions, advertising and marketing globally – and is advocating the same for its partners and customers.

It was clearly a timely decision however, Croft notes that the company has been focusing on its environmental impact for years, with the latest move “the next progressive step in reducing our environmental impact alongside our broader policies on plastic packaging in general”.

And Greenpeace’s Edge says that despite the encouraging movement from brands on plastic waste, there is still more that can be done. She explains: “Iceland recognise you can’t recycle your way out of this problem and their announcement is the level of ambition we need to be seeing from all companies”.

Scientific developments, ground breaking documentaries and consumer demands all mean that now is the time to tackle plastic. However, brands should be cautious that consumers won’t be fooled by one-time PR opportunities and instead will reward brands who put environmental consciousness at their core.