Plastic waste has risen up the agenda among government, consumers and brands over the past year, fuelled by the BBC’s Blue Planet II series that shone a spotlight on the damage plastic waste is doing to the environment.
Consumers’ perceptions of single-use plastics have shifted as a result. Some 44% of consumers say they have recently become more concerned about single-use plastics, according to a study by Kantar Worldpanel, while 70% plan to change their behaviour in some way in response. For example, 34% of respondents say they’re happy to switch to more sustainable alternatives such as a reusable coffee cup when picking up their caffeine fix.
Coffee chains including Costa, Starbucks and Pret A Manger have all pledged to do their part by offering discounts to customers who bring their own reusable cup, while chains such as Pizza Express, JD Wetherspoon and All Bar One are banishing plastic straws from their premises and supermarkets have vowed to cut the amount of plastic waste they produce.
Government is also focusing on the issue, promising to extend its plastic bag ban to small retailers, introduce a latte levy and banning single-use plastic in government departments. And brands such as Coca-Cola and Evian have promised to ensure their products are made from recycled plastic and are themselves recycled.
While the question of whether businesses are going far enough, fast enough to reduce plastic use remains, the increased attention on the issue has led to a new opportunity for brands that can pitch themselves as an alternative to plastic.
Creating a new market for plastic alternatives
Paul Gibson, the founder of eco-friendly stainless steel straw brand Turtle Savers, recognised a gap in the market earlier this year after hearing a radio segment about local cafés and businesses pledging to ban single-use plastic products. Straws are one of the biggest sources of waste, with 8.5 billion plastic straws thrown away every year in Britain alone.
“You’d have to be completely cold blooded and non-receptive to not think about how many plastic straws are disposed of in Britain each year,” he tells Marketing Week.
“I compared the markets within the US and UK by using various analytical tools and could see there was a shift in perception of people not wanting to use single-use plastics. We couldn’t not take that as an opportunity to not only form a brand but to do something good.”
Gibson set about creating what he calls an aspirational branded straw that he hopes will be celebrated by users on social media using the hashtag #turtlesavers. Set to launch in the fourth quarter, it will be available wholesale to retailers and to consumers via Amazon and Facebook Marketplace. Gibson plans to launch in the UK, Canada, the US and Australia.
Turtle Savers joins existing reusable straw brands such as Ecostrawz and Boobalou. They are all part of a fast-growing sector, according to a report by online marketplace Etsy.
During the six months to August this year, searches for metal straws increased by 205% year on year on Etsy, while searches for plastic straws decline 11%. Turtle Savers hopes it can set itself apart branding its straws.
“I’m a branding and product guy through and through, so I don’t just create a product, I create a brand. The first thing I noticed was nobody was branding products and were instead going down the route of ‘stainless steel that’ and ‘biodegradable this’, which bores the pants off a consumer,” says Gibson.
“We must acknowledge that we are a social media generation. It’s common to post a picture of yourself sipping a cocktail of sorts, so we thought branding on the straw was the way to go and that we might be able to create a movement through a picture or hashtag.”
Creating brands around plastic alternatives
It is this idea of creating a brand from a commodity such as a straw or coffee cup that is fuelling growth in the sector.
Reusable coffee cup company KeepCup launched in Melbourne in 2009 before extending its footprint to the UK in 2012. It has now sold more than eight million cups, while its business has doubled in size since its launch over here. The company’s UK marketing manager Emma Padwick says the plastic debate has really helped mould the business and spearhead growth.
“The shift in the UK is happening because customers are demanding the shift and we’re looking to use that momentum,” she says.
“When I look at our timeline regarding sales, there are key moments that stand out. For Australia, that’s due to the ‘War on Waste’ TV programme, whereas in the UK growth can be attributed to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series that aired last year and really sparked change, and more importantly, a cultural shift.”
You can’t purchase your way out of this mess. You can’t purchase your way into a sustainable future, but we can make a genuine attempt to solve the problem.
Emma Padwick, KeepCup
Sarah Kauss, the founder and CEO of US-based stainless steel bottle brand S’well, can vouch for that. The brand positions itself as an alternative to carrying around a plastic bottle, but also as a fashion accessory; its steel bottles can cost from £25 to £45.
“We saw an opportunity in the UK and we didn’t want to miss it. The London office launched in the fall of 2015 and in early 2016 we revamped our approach to the market and positioned our product as a premium fashion accessory, which we had successfully done in New York and the US,” she says.
“What’s in the headlines of newspapers in the UK every day is really putting S’well front and centre of where a lot of that growth is coming from.”
S’well’s business has doubled in size since it launched in Britain and it is seeing triple-digit growth each year. “For us, our mission has always been to eliminate plastic products and our growth in the UK can be attributed to the change of perception toward plastic from the consumer,” says UK marketing boss Michelle Nielsen
S’well’s products can be found in major department stores such as John Lewis, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Meanwhile, its sister brand S’ip By Swell (which offers smaller, cheaper bottles) will be made available in more than 160 Boots stores in the lead-up to Christmas – a move that emphasises just how quickly the market is growing.
S’well is not the only product trying to tap into this market. Rival stainless steel bottle brand Chilly’s saw an opportunity through partnering with Pret A Manger, one of the major cafe chains pledging to banish single-use plastic bottles from its stores. Chilly’s has since created a new range of reusable bottles in three exclusive Pret designs to help customers reduce the number of plastic bottles they use.
How brands can help drive change
Seven in eight British adults claim to be at least “fairly concerned” about the plastic waste problem, according to research by Ipsos MORI.
Many say they’re prepared to help solve the problem, with 75% saying they would re-use plastic bags and bottles and 54% that they would buy more products made from recycled materials. Another 43% would stop buying goods that have packaging that cannot be recycled.
However, just 3% believe the responsibility to spark change lies with the consumer compared to 27% who say it’s companies’ problems.
You can’t purchase yourself out of this mess, according to KeepCup’s Padwick. But you can help change consumer perceptions.
“We need to realise that we can’t purchase our way into a sustainable future but we can make a genuine attempt to solve the problem. We want to be part of the solution here, rather than part of the problem,” she says.
“We want to be seen as the thought leaders, as having started a reusable cup revolution. Of course we will take advantage of the conversation, but I don’t want KeepCup to be seen as opportunistic businesses in regard to just selling a lot of product, but rather a brand that is helping create change.”
Benjamin Young the CEO of frank green, another Australian company that produces coffee cups and flasks made from BPA free materials and stainless steel, and rivals the likes of KeepCup, agrees that programmes like Blue Planet II and legislation such as the ‘latte levy’ have thrust the anti-plastic message into the public eye, serving as a wake-up call for British consumers.
However, he also acknowledges, there’s still some way to go.
“On a day-to-day basis, there’s still quite a bit of confusion around what you can recycle, what you can’t, and where it all ends up. We hope that after a few days of using our product consumers will naturally begin to be more mindful of the ‘throw-away culture’ that we experience on a daily basis, whether that’s through food packaging, plastic shopping bags and even fast fashion shopping habits,” Young says.
“As a society we have a certain understanding of the damage that’s been done, and now, as a brand, we want to focus on the solutions that can be made. It’s why we are in business and what our products are designed to do.”
Positioning plastic alternatives in the UK
With many of the brands leading the charge on alternatives to plastic coming from outside the UK, there might be a perception that UK business is lagging behind. But S’well’s Kauss disagrees.
“Britain is really leading the way in the war against plastic, all of the initiatives they’re putting in place is prompting brands to make change. We’re making strides in the US but I would say the UK is really holding strong,” she adds.
Young reiterates these statements, suggesting UK consumers are looking further than just their disposable coffee cup impact, but at their broader consumption habits. He says consumers are also expecting brands to take more responsibility for the products they make and the way they make them.
“It’s inspiring to see the support and feedback we get from people driving positive change on both sides of the world. It’s not so much about a whole nation being ‘behind’, but more about what is being done to make people aware of the impact of single use plastics, and how accessible the solutions will be,” he adds.
“The conversation around the latte levy did a huge job in raising the awareness of single use plastics this year. So this isn’t a trend that is going to go away and time soon.”
Nevertheless, brands launching in the UK will need to think about how they position plastic alternatives and the needs of the local market.
“In Australia it’s more about individual behavioural change, so KeepCup was able to come in and talk to that market in a very clear way whereas in the UK we have been more focused on more systemic solutions,” says Padwick.
“When War on Waste aired in Australia our business doubled because they took on this personal responsibility to make change, while there is still some of that in the UK, this would be the key difference.
“The UK is stronger than Australia on things like policy and legislation. It has the population and manufacturing base to drive change.”
With eco-friendly solutions available across countless categories from cutlery, to coffee cups, flasks, food containers and straws, its evident powerful documentaries, government legislation and word-of-mouth has helped change consumers’ perceptions and opened the doors to a new market for both new and existing brands to make their mark.