Plastic not fantastic: the problem for brands
A view from Neil Henderson

Plastic not fantastic: the problem for brands

Consumers need to see tangible evidence of action backed up with a long-term, authentic commitment, writes St Luke's chief executive.

Older readers of Campaign may remember 14 years ago when St Luke’s created the first carbon neutral ad, having become the first carbon neutral agency – and second company – in the UK in 1998. It’s fair to say that at the time the reception was not universally welcome, at least from some of our competitors. "What a pile of wank," was the response from one rival agency published within this very organ.

Since those early days the advertising industry has – perhaps after having its hand forced by its clients – become a little more enlightened, and environmental accreditation is now frequently a requirement on RFIs. In short, it’s rather less wanky now.

Some of our same clients are facing up to their own environmental impact – to borrow the words of Theresa May, plastic may be one of the great environmental scourges of our time, but it is also fast-becoming a major marketing headache for the brand owners that use it.

How they continue to use it and, as importantly, how they reduce their use of it, is both a brand communications opportunity and a challenge. Iceland’s recent announcement that it will be plastic-free by 2023 is a public relations coup. That’s two years sooner than Tesco has pledged to make all its packaging recyclable or compostable. Sainsbury’s has set the target of reducing packaging by half by 2020, compared to 2005 volumes. Meanwhile Aldi is working to source all its pulp-based packaging from certified forests and the Co-op make 80% of its products "easily recyclable", both by the same year.

However, retail and FMCG brands and their customers’ relationship with plastic is not quite so clear cut. For example, concerns about food waste are a major issue, and to help combat this, advances in, and the development of, new forms of food packaging will increase, not lessen. Also important in combating food waste is addressing consumers’ attitudes towards the look of the products they buy – in short, the belief many of us cling onto that symmetrical or unblemished fruit and veg is the best purely because of its aesthetic look – and the future role of plastic in this respect remains unresolved.

Without doubt, consumers want to engage with brands they perceive to be doing the right thing, which (for Blue Planet viewers, especially) means cutting plastic.

Shoppers are increasingly expressing their values through their purchasing habits, and this is particularly acute amongst Millennials who, research suggests, overwhelmingly believe business should be a force for positive social impact and, for whom sustainability is a prerequisite.

As a result of this, many brand owners are reporting sustainable brands are growing faster. It’s well known that Unilever’s so-called "sustainable living" brands are becoming increasingly important to the company’s business.

However after decades of "green washing" by brand owners paying lip service by simply cashing in on the latest concern; consumers are sceptical of ambiguous environmental claims made by corporations, and won’t easily be seduced into parting with their cash to help the planet. Consumers need to see tangible evidence of action backed up with a long-term, authentic commitment.

The most successful schemes require little or no action from consumers and they must be easily understood.

While Unilever’s move to reduce the packaging of its deodorants over the last few years – its compressed range is one example of this – promised huge environmental benefits, consumers struggled to see the benefits for themselves. The smaller packs were sold for the same price and this raised value for money concerns as people struggled to comprehend the innovation. In contrast, Pret A Manger is reducing the price of its coffee by 50p for people who bringing in their own cups. Consumers will easily appreciate the impact on the environment, but will act mostly because of the better value they can achieve if they play their part.

Although not directly in the environmental space, one of the most inspiring brands acting as a force for good is Tom’s the shoe brand. It created a "one for one" initiative which promises that for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair of shoes will be bought for deprived children somewhere else in the world. The company has so far sold over 35 million pairs of shoes and the one for one scheme is being extended to eyewear, coffee and now bags. An initiative like this is easily understood, requires no action or compromise by the consumer and it has successfully captured the public imagination. 

Iceland has made great start, then, and a commitment that’s long-term, highly relevant and does not require consumers to compromise in order to take part. Much like St Luke’s early attempts at raising the issue of carbon neutrality.

Neil Henderson is chief executive of St Luke's

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