Will the government take control of the packaging issue?

Government proposals to crack down on excess product packaging and end the practice of supermarkets handing out free plastic bags – announced last week as part of its new strategy to cut waste – will prompt a major rethink for marketers.

Many brand owners have previously eschewed committing to the green agenda and retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been accused of stocking gratuitous packaging. While leading supermarkets claim to have set out demanding targets to cut waste, environment secretary David Miliband’s proposals are likely to introduce an element of compulsion.

Some of the proposals, such as phasing out free plastic bags, have already been adopted by supermarkets, though critics say the targets they have set don’t go far enough.

Supermarket campaigner for Friends of the Earth Sandra Bell says: “The supermarkets are trying to outdo each other on the environmental front which we welcome. But a lot of their products were ridiculously over-packaged in the first place. So they will now just get rid of the worst excesses. Tesco has set itself demanding targets but it will still have handed out 3 billion plastic bags by 2008.” 

Re-focusing marketing attention
The wide-ranging nature of the government’s waste strategy should serve as a wake-up call for marketers. Giles Gibbons, managing director at corporate responsibility consultancy Good Business, says that environmental concerns on packaging were never at the top of marketing agendas, but this has changed over the past year.

“A lot of environmental push has not come from agencies or marketers but from corporate responsibility departments. It has not captured the imagination of marketers,” he says.

Ethical brands such as Green & Black’s and Innocent, which pride themselves on their green credentials, would argue otherwise.

Yet Innocent itself recently highlighted the potential problems facing marketers adopting the green agenda, when a packaging issue forced it to recall 100,000 bottles of one of its ethical smoothy drinks following claims they had been exploding.

This may have been an isolated example but observers say marketers, while aware of the need to be green, are scared of radically overhauling packaging for fear of compromising the integrity and identity of their brands.

Protecting the brand
One insider says: “Marketers know that goods are over-packaged but it’s just not been at the top of their agenda to do anything about it. They are worried that change will compromise product and brand quality.” 

Tesco disputes this. The supermarket giant has earmarked a 25% reduction across all packaging including brand and own label by 2010.

A spokesman for the company says brand identity encompasses more than just packaging. He says packaging is just one aspect of many functions of brand identity along with food safety, hygiene and labelling. He suggests that Tesco’s commitment will prompt massive change in marketers thinking over branded products.

He says: “It is a lot easier to make these commitments on your own products.” And adds that it is “hugely significant that we will be engaging with our suppliers over reducing packaging on branded products”.

Others suggest that initiatives undertaken by Sainsbury’s, such as its decision to stock the designer Anya Hindmarch’s green shopping bag bearing the tag “I’m not a plastic bag” will become more common place.

Antidote, the agency which designed the bag and created a campaign called “Plastic ain’t my bag”, has persuaded Virgin Megastores to sign up to its campaign. It is confident others will follow.

At the same time, Andy Nairn, planning director at ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says the environmental drive by the supermarkets will prompt others to follow suit.

“There has been massive waste and profligacy over the years. The likes of Tesco and Marks & Spencer are now at the vanguard of the changes and where the giants go the others will follow,” he says.

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