Brands are talking rubbish

Companies are beginning to realise the potential in adopting environmentally responsible strategies, but sometimes talk isn’t being matched by action, particularly when it comes to their use of plastics

More than 35 brands, including Procter & Gamble’s Gillette, GlaxoSmithKline’s Aquafresh and Ribena, and Red Bull, have signed up to promote recycling in London as part of a &£1.5m advertising campaign by Team Saatchi (MW last week). Environmental responsibility, it seems, is featuring higher up on the marketing agendas of brand owners, who want to be seen to be taking positive steps towards adopting sound environmental policies. But does the green image hide a less than wholesome reality, and do consumers really care about corporate social responsibility?

Research commissioned by Symphony Environmental reveals new insights into the expectations of a British public that is more environmentally aware than ever before.

The results deliver a clear message: 88 per cent of UK adults say they would feel more positive towards a retailer that actively marketed its operations as being environmentally responsible. For instance, two-thirds of UK adults say they would feel better about a retailer that used degradable plastic bags, even if they had to pay for them. Twenty-seven per cent would prefer not to pay, but say they are still attracted by a retailer with environmentally responsible policies.

Thin-gauge flexible plastic, such as that used for carrier bags and food packaging, plays a huge part in retail. For instance, every year 17.5 billion plastic bags are given away at supermarkets alone, equating to 290 bags per person in the UK (Waste Watch).

Furthermore, UK consumers say that business, not government, should take the lead on environmental issues. Forty-three per cent of UK adults say they think the food and drinks industry and supermarkets should drive change. Meanwhile, 13 per cent of adults say that it is the responsibility of households to ensure they are doing their bit for the environment.

Plastic has a huge environmental impact: almost all the plastic ever produced can still be found on the planet somewhere today. As a nation we drop 2.26 million pieces of litter every day and we throw away our own body weight in rubbish every two months. The vast proportion of that waste is plastic, the most common type being thin-gauge flexible plastic that is also used in crisp packets, direct mail and newspaper wrap, sweet wrappers, milk cartons, cigarette and food packaging.

This form of plastic waste could be reduced significantly if retailers and manufacturers were to use degradable plastic instead. There now exists a range of thin-gauge flexible plastics that degrade totally and safely leaving only water, carbon dioxide and a tiny amount of biomass. Most plastic manufacturers, suppliers and retailers can adopt this without any extra cost.

UK companies are in a position to use responsible environmental policies as a key differentiator to attract customers in an increasingly competitive market as never before.

Consumers believe supermarkets should take the initiative and use degradable plastic on a wide scale. Eighty-one per cent say they think Tesco should take a lead by using degradable plastic in its bags, with Sainsbury’s and Asda expected to follow suit. Consumers do not have the same expectations of high street retailers, but those furthest up the list were Boots, Debenhams and Argos.

Marketers should recognise this as an opportunity, not a burden. There is a clear opportunity to capitalise on the obvious appeal of environmental marketing and at the same time to develop a genuine corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme. Given the latest targets set by various EU directives, UK business has a key role to play in reducing society’s impact on the environment.

The best form of CSR is one that can demonstrate tangible results. Consumers are genuinely affected by waste – 31 per cent of people named discarded plastic as their most disliked example of anti-social behaviour and 88 per cent agreed that litter ruins their enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant area. Those companies that have explored environmental marketing find their customers to be receptive, sympathetic and, most importantly, positively influenced.

The diminished environmental responsibility of government in the eyes of the consumer emphasises the power of UK business in driving change and informing the public how they can make a difference. From a marketing perspective, whether these objectives, actions and initiatives include degradable plastics is of course dependent on each company’s needs. However, when the switch costs virtually nothing and could have such substantial commercial benefits, not to mention environmental impact, the lingering question remains: “why on earth not?”

Trends is edited by Nathalie Kilby. Allan Blacher, chief operarting office of Symphony Environmental, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight.

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