The urgency of the challenge
Public demand for action on plastic waste has escalated significantly in the last 5-6 years, and it is now a top concern for citizens around the world.
While scientists have been raising the alarm since at least the 1990s, until relatively recently there was little public concern or clamor for government action on plastic pollution. Now political, scientific and public consensus seems to be relatively aligned. Bans on single use plastic are coming into force, and a UN treaty on plastic pollution is set to be agreed in 2024.
In the UK, people’s consciousness was jolted in 2017 when the BBC’s Blue Planet II series showed the impact of plastic waste on marine wildlife: a turtle tangled in plastic netting; a dead albatross with a stomach full of plastic shards. With the anti-plastic message amplified by media campaigns, public demand for action on single-use plastic escalated immediately. Similar developments across the world, and - in particular - widespread sharing of images where plastic pollution is harming marine life, have led to the emergence of a full blown global movement for the world to break free from plastic waste.
In this article we will see, through the lens of various research studies, that there continues to be more and more demand from customers for action on plastic. Alongside that, there is more demand for businesses to do the right thing. especially from younger customers. As the market for more ethical and sustainably produced products goes from strength to strength, businesses have the opportunity to use action on plastic as one way of meeting these customer expectations, and standing out from the competition.
Citizens are aware and ready for action
It is not a lack of customer awareness that is holding back action on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a top environmental concern:
- Over 4 in 5 citizens (83%) in a global study report being worried about plastic litter in the ocean (also 83%).
- This is a higher proportion than say they are worried about deforestation or global warming (79% and 78% respectively).
What is encouraging is that this concern seems to be – increasingly – matched with action. PwC’s global consumer insights survey found that greater numbers of consumers act in more ‘eco-friendly’ ways year to year.
- Around half of consumers (54%) claim to buy from companies that are supportive of protecting the environment
- About the same proportion (51%) say that they will check packaging for sustainability certifications.
Plastic waste – more so than climate change – is an issue that people feel they can impact.
- Roughly half of Americans say they have already made changes to reduce single-use plastic.
- Similarly, the global Tetra Pak Index 2021 study found that, since the pandemic, two in five (42%) respondents were consciously using less plastic.
While the trajectory is clear, it is important not to overstate claims of more eco-friendly or plastic-conscious behavior, as barriers continue to exist. Recent findings highlight that many UK consumers still face barriers to more sustainable purchases that include higher pricing, confusion around labeling, and a lack of trust in eco-friendly claims. Well-intended developments like offering compostable or bioplastic packaging, for example, can cause consumer confusion. In most areas, very few sites are able to process the material as intended, and packaging ends up in landfill where it can produce more CO2e than plastic bags. Issues like this coming to light can undermine confidence in ‘green’ labels.
Generally though, there is a large amount of support for environmental and, specifically, plastic waste action.
- Four in five Americans (80%) said they would buy goods or products that don’t use single-use plastic packaging, if they had the option.
- Almost three quarters of UK consumers (71%) want brands to do more to make beauty and personal care products sustainable (including tackling issues around plastic packaging).
Younger consumers are leading the charge
Data from Gen Z and millennial consumers across the U.S. and Europe illustrates the importance of action on plastic waste to this age group. Ocean pollution is the most pressing environmental issue for younger generations.
- Almost 9 in 10 Gen Z and millennial respondents say they are very concerned about ocean pollution (87%)
- Around 4 in 5 (83%) say they are very concerned about the increasing amount of plastic waste that goes to landfills or is incinerated; and 2 in 3 (67%) feel guilty if they don't recycle.
These young consumers are looking to brands to support sustainable choices.
- A clear majority think brands should do more to help them live sustainably (70%)
- Most young consumers - 4 in 5 - want it to be easier to find sustainable products (80%).
It is important to recognise that this group is not young, idealistic, but ultimately powerless. The oldest millennials are now 39, and millennials represent the largest ‘generation’ in the USA. They have a combined spending power of more than $2.5 billion in the U.S. alone. That millennials hold pro-environmental and anti-plastic waste views, and are more likely than Gen X or Baby Boomers to back this up and make sustainable purchases represents a significant opportunity for brands.
Competition, growth, and certifications
The CPG sector is in a constant battle for customer attention and loyalty. The rise of environmental awareness, coupled with the growing influence of millennials, is changing the nature of this competition. To build positive brand connections with consumers, investing in sustainability and cause marketing are at an all-time-high.
One way for brands to showcase their credentials as a sustainably-driven brand is to have visible certifications that validate environmental claims. Though clearly, to retain trust in certification marks, efforts need to be made to ensure that claims are verified, relevant, and impactful.
- A vast majority (87%) of American consumers say green certifications are important to them when purchasing a product.
Consumers are backing their stated environmental preferences with purchasing behavior.
- A 2023 McKinsey study in the USA, found that more than half of the respondents would pay more for a product with sustainable packaging.
- Another U.S. survey found that, behind quality, sustainability and ethical business practices are the biggest drivers of brand loyalty.
The result of this shifting landscape means that consumer goods with sustainability credentials outperform those without them.
- Despite the fact that sustainability-marketed products are less than one-fifth of the CPG market, they delivered one-third of market growth (2015-2021).
- In nearly all CPG categories sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts.
- Overall, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.
There are undoubtedly some consumer segments that are more likely to make efforts to make sustainable purchases, and various segmentation models have been created to illustrate these preferences. Interestingly though, McKinsey’s research suggests that the general appeal of environmentally and socially responsible products is not limited to particular audiences and is making headway with broad swathes of American consumers.
Brands are starting to respond
That sets the scene. Citizens around the world see the plastic waste crisis as a top environmental concern. Consumer research suggests people across developed economies are shaping their behaviors in ways that lessen their own impact on plastic waste, and are looking to brands (and governments) to take further action. Millennials have growing financial power, and fuelled by this – the market for sustainability-marketed CPG products is growing rapidly.
Despite this, brand-led action on plastic is underdeveloped. Many brands are stuck in a loop: they recognize that action on plastic pollution is necessary, and make longer-term commitments to change packaging, but continue to contribute to the problem in the short term.
At rePurpose Global we enable brands to take immediate action on the plastic waste crisis, and support them in the journey to reduce their plastic footprints. Our suite of plastic action solutions makes impact on the plastic crisis accessible to any brand. Our certification marks and storytelling toolkits empower brands to share stories of the impact they are enabling with their customers.
Vadham Teas joined the rePurpose Global community in 2020 to recover nature-bound plastic in India. They have made their Plastic Neutral certification part of the brand DNA - the rePurpose Global certification mark is on the pack, and sits alongside plastic removal figures on their homepage. Vadham continues to go from strength to strength, and now have over 3 million customers worldwide (apparently including celebrity fans such as Oprah Winfrey, Marah Carey and Ellen DeGeneres!).
Grove Collaborative are another business taking action on plastic by working with rePurpose Global. They are recovering plastic waste as they work towards becoming 100% plastic-free. Grove have made this a central pillar of their sustainability and Beyond PlasticTM efforts. Not only that, but they have made plastic action accessible to consumers through their impact shop, where it is one of their best sellers and has a star rating of 4.9/5 – a clear indication of the consumer demand for plastic action.
The brands mentioned above are early movers in terms of their response to the consumer demand for action of plastic waste. But this movement is growing fast, and continues to accelerate as a ‘perfect storm’ for plastic action is brewing.
- Firstly, the competitive dynamics of the CPG sector means that brands will increasingly respond to these consumer signals. As we have seen, those able to take serious action on plastic waste, and communicate it effectively, will forge ahead – and others will follow.
- Secondly, there are regulatory headwinds across the world, from various Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies, to the upcoming UN treaty on plastic pollution, that will put more onus on brands to take action.
- Finally, employees’ sense of moral responsibility is increasingly a factor. Employees are increasingly millennial-led, and reflect wider shifts in attitudes towards plastic. This employee sentiment will shine through in brand strategies.
By taking action on plastic waste, brands have an opportunity to show customers that they care about the same issues as them, and also to stay ahead of impending regulations.
At rePurpose Global we can support this with verified, credible, and impactful action on plastic pollution. We help brands meet customer expectations, stand out from the crowd, and make their employees proud of where they work.