Plastic debate: Price and convenience still outweigh consumers’ willingness to go ‘naked’

Most consumers are glad companies are offering plastic-free alternatives but brands have got to make it easy and more cost effective or they simply won’t switch.

Coco Di Mama replaced plastic straws with a pasta alternative called the #Pastraw

Brands big and small are working to reduce the amount of plastic they use instead offering ‘naked’ alternatives, such as loose fruit or unwrapped greetings cards, but new research suggests they’ve got a long way to go to convince consumers to make the switch.

Consumers have been quick to jump on the anti-plastic bandwagon, in part thanks to shows like the BBC’s Blue Planet II. However, if making a sustainable choice is going to cost more or be less convenient, brands will struggle to encourage people to take the eco-friendly option.

Because while 92.4% of consumers are ‘glad’ brands offer naked products, the majority (60.4%) will only take the sustainable route if it’s just as easy to buy and the price is the same, according to a survey of UK consumers conducted for Marketing Week by Toluna.

Just 14.6% say they will purchase the naked version no matter the price and convenience, while 8.6% will stick with the usual version they purchase.

So as brands look to nudge consumers toward better habits they had better ensure they’ve got the price and accessibility to match. 

Keep choice simple

When offering consumers a choice it’s important to make it an easy one, according to Lush Cosmetics’ naked concept lead Charlotte Nisbet.

Last month, Lush opened its first UK-based naked store in Manchester after having successfully launched the concept in Milan and Berlin last year. The stores offer a range of cosmetic products like solid soap bars, shampoos and cleansers, which as the name suggests, are void of any plastic packaging.

READ MORE: Fighting the war on plastic: The brands trying to break our plastic addiction.

Nisbet says the naked stores are similar in many ways to its regular shops, aside from the fact they remove choice, making it virtually impossible for customers not to make sustainable decisions.

“We wanted to create a space where it was really easy for our customers to make that choice where everything they chose was plastic packaging-free,” she says.

It’s not a big bang and then it’s done. [Sustainability] is something that is going to be part of the thought process for every new collection going forward.

Scott Corbett, Paperchase

Coco Di Mama is another brand making the decision easy for customers.  The Italian grab-and-go food chain has removed plastic straws from its premises and now offers a pasta alternative. It also has paper straws on hand for consumers who may have a gluten intolerance, but stores only give out a few paper straws each week, compared to thousands of pasta straws.

“We are very aware of our environmental impact and considering we’re a food brand that predominately sells food in take-away packaging we’re very focused on reducing plastic waste,” Coco Di Mama’s head of marketing Sara McCraight says.

Inside Lush’s naked concept store in Manchester.

The idea for a pasta straw stemmed from a meeting where an employee suggested using a type of long hollow pasta called bucatini.

“At the time we didn’t know pasta straws were a thing. In fact, pasta straws aren’t a thing. You can’t just Google ‘pasta straws’ because you won’t find anything,” McCraight says.

Naked isn’t just an ‘add-on’

It’s important brands ensure going naked isn’t just seen as a token gesture but is successfully integrated across the business as part of wider sustainability plans.

Nisbet explains the ‘naked’ concept stems from one of the company’s first plastic-free inventions – the bath bomb.

“The naked shops are just a celebration of the fact we have been innovating and creating for 30 years and we can now open an entire shop dedicated to those innovations,” she says.

“We definitely don’t see [naked stores] as the end goal. If anything this is our first major step forward in what we can do with the business. Sustainability is woven into everything we do.”

Another business wanting to make sure consumers know it is dedicated to doing what it can for the environment is Paperchase.

A badge from Paperchase’s ‘Conscious Living Collection’.

According to the company’s brand director Scott Corbett, the stationary chain is still working on its broader sustainability strategy but is adamant it has a solid plan in place.

“We don’t want [the Conscious Living Collection] to feel like an add-on because there are lots of things we already do but this is a great way to start the new year and a manifesto for moving forward,” he says.

Corbett says Paperchase has always taken social responsibility seriously but the company “hasn’t really shouted about it in-store or online”.

“It got us thinking about what our customers really want from us, so this was a great opportunity to showcase what we already do while offering a hint into where we want to go moving forward,” he says.

Before the launch of the collection, 90% of Paperchase’s cards were already made from recycled materials.

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is also offering consumers the opportunity to make a conscious choice.

The retailer is trialling naked cards cross 119 stores, where all plastic sleeves have been removed and the cards and envelopes are 100% recyclable. Cards also include a message on the reverse outlining the fact they are eco-friendly.

Listening to consumers

Many of the eco-friendly initiatives brands are offering have stemmed from customer feedback and an increasing demand for alternatives.

For instance, Coco Di Mama’s McCraight says the launch of the pasta straw was thanks to exactly that.

“We collated all our customer feedback and realised we were getting a lot of feedback in a category called ‘environmental concern’ which didn’t exist until last year,” she explains.

“But week after week concerns kept popping up. The volume of concerns surrounding straws was really noticeable. And the questions regarding straws multiplied over the year, so we became aware plastic was not what [customers] wanted.”

Being eco-friendly costs more and it can be hard to get things approved and signed off. So to offset those costs we have to create savings in other areas.

Sara McCraight, Coco Di Mama

Likewise, at Paperchase, Corbett says: “It’s really about listening and taking notice of what’s going on, on our website and social media channels. Launching the range is a response to listening to our customers who are becoming increasingly aware of the affect we are having on the planet.”

READ MORE: Meet the brands taking on ‘the asterisk’ in the war against plastic waste

Nisbet, meanwhile, says TV shows have drawn awareness to the debilitating impact plastic waste is having on marine life but she says many consumers still don’t know what to do about it.

“Everyone is now aware of plastic and the problems with it and consumers are now trying to do what they can to reduce plastic waste, thanks to Blue Planet and everything that has happened in the last couple of years. But consumers don’t actually know what they can do about it,” she adds.

Hence the need for the naked stores, which make it easy for consumers to make a change.

Sell the sustainability story

To help encourage consumers to make lifestyle changes it’s also crucial for brands to sell their sustainability story, but change won’t happen overnight.

For instance, 37.2% of consumers aren’t even aware naked products exist and only half (50.2%) would be more loyal to brands that offer naked products compared to 48% who say naked products wouldn’t impact their loyalty to a brand at all, according to the Toluna survey.

Some 1.8% even claim they’d be less loyal to brands offering these products.

So convincing consumers to go plastic-free is one thing, but turning them into loyal customers is another.

Lush doesn’t believe it should tell customers what to do, but to simply offer them an option. Nisbet adds that the cosmetics company doesn’t rely on traditional marketing tools to tell its sustainability story but on its staff.

Lush’s Manchester-based naked concept store.

“Our biggest marketing tool is our staff. They’re so passionate and we simply provide those staff with the tools to tell that story and really trust in them that they will do that,” she says.

“But we’re not here to educate our customers or tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. We don’t even think we have all the answers, we just want to make it easy for them to reduce their use of plastics and take control of the plastic waste they produce in the bathroom.”

Paperchase, meanwhile, will print a message on products using vegetable ink to explain why it’s eco-friendly, like ‘this pen used to be a water bottle’.

“The stories will also explain to consumers how they can be more conscious and live a more sustainable life by using things more than once. It’s about helping people live an eco-friendly life by giving people the tools they need to make a bigger impact,” he says.

Corbett adds that to really drive change brands can’t treat sustainable initiatives as a one-off.

“It’s not a big bang and then it’s done. This is something that is going to be part of the thought process for every new collection going forward,” he says.

The challenges

When it comes to preserving the environment, logistics, cost and internal buy-in are three main obstacles brands must overcome.

“There’s a price tag attached to some of these products because they are a bit niche in terms of the processes involved and the way of doing things which unfortunately makes it more expensive,” Corbett explains.

“We’re keen to see whether people actually want this stuff and the more they do want it, the more reason to produce it for customers.”

At Coco Di Mama, McCraight has had to convince the team that spending more on sustainable products is the way to go.

“Being eco-friendly costs more and it can be hard to get things approved and signed off. So to offset those costs we have to create savings in other areas. But we want to create a business people are proud of,” she says.

We’re not here to educate our customers or tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. We don’t even think we have all the answers.

Charlotte Nisbet, Lush Cosmetics

Challenges for Lush include finding a more environmentally friendly way to transport products to stores and to develop an answer to Italy’s strict labelling laws, which mean going completely naked is currently not an option.

“But that’s the purpose of the naked shop; it’s a journey and exploration with our customers where we ask them, what do you demand from retail?

“We’ve already managed to remove all our plastic packaging from this shop [in Manchester], we’ve created our own demo station out of recycled plastic, we use eco-friendly paint and all these new materials, but what more can we do?”

But for any brands, a step forward in their sustainability journey whether challenging or not is a step in the right direction.

And for Paperchase, the reason behind its sustainable push is simple.

“This is very much the start of the thought process for us. We are not perfect and we aren’t claiming that everything we do is 100% sustainable. We are just showing that this is a direction we want to go in,” Corbett says.

“It’s not just a trend, it’s reality.”