The dash to bag a green image

If the level of public interest in reducing plastic bag usage is anything to go by, brands are going to have to get used to demonstrating their environmentally responsible credentials to consumers

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledging his support for the Daily Mail’s newspaper crusade against the humble plastic bag and Marks & Spencer to start charging customers 5p a bag, ethical and environmental initiatives are once again at the forefront of national debate.

Nearly 80% of the British public are taking steps to become more responsible consumers, driven by environmental and ethical concerns. As headlines over global warming, cheap labour and carbon footprints dominate the press, 77% say they are beginning to change their own behaviour to help safeguard the planet, according to research from brand consultancy Added Value, conducted by Lightspeed Research and Invoke.

While consumers may be changing their own behaviour, it transpires that many expect brands to be committed to social and environmental change as well. Some 80% of British consumers say it is important that the brands they buy are committed to acting in a way that can be considered socially aware or environmentally responsible.

British consumers believe brands can act more responsibly in a number of ways: committing to biodegradable or recycled packaging comes out top, with 78% saying this was important in terms of the brands they buy. “Brands should ensure their packaging is minimal and recyclable,” one respondent says.

Marketers overwhelmed with how to begin tackling climate change could start by placing the 3 Rs – “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” – onto their marketing agenda. Packaged brands are largely responsible for the 30 million tonnes of household waste a year. In the long-term, marketers may have to reconsider how to brand products without using wasteful packaging.

While some companies, like Nestlé, are setting industry standards with sustainable packaging, others are burying their heads in the sand. Added Value’s research suggests that brands which choose to ignore this issue will suffer. Consumers are already voting with their wallets and rejecting brands that use too much wasteful packaging.

“I actively think about levels of packaging and I buy bigger volumes of certain products so that only one box is used,” explains one respondent. “I reject excess packaging wherever possible,” says another.

Packaging and recycling (85%) emerge as the most powerful drivers behind purchasing decisions, interestingly ahead of Fair Trade (66%), while 72% of British consumers look for a brand’s commitment in reducing CO2 emissions. PepsiCo’s Walkers crisps is one brand that has seized the initiative in this area, publishing the calculated carbon footprint value for a standard packet of crisps (75g) on each bag and committing to reducing its carbon emissions within two years.

General philanthropy, in terms of giving to charitable causes, was rated important by less than half, just 44%, suggesting that consumers want to see brands taking action themselves to drive social and environmental change, rather than just contribute financially.

So how are British consumers changing their own behaviour to help safeguard the environment? Again, the 3 Rs seem to form the cornerstone of their responsible behaviour.

Cutting down the use of plastic bags is one of the most popular actions among responsible British consumers. “I no longer use plastic bags and take my own bag to the shops,” one respondent says. Another adds: “I buy things and if I don’t need the carrier bag, I just put the small items directly in my bag.”

Indeed, plastic bags are becoming a battleground. Some 17 billion plastic bags a year are given to British consumers. The average Briton accepts five a week.

First, Anya Hindmarch’s limited edition of “I’m not a plastic bag” for Sainsbury’s gained cult status, with shoppers queuing to buy them. The 2,000 fair trade, recycled cotton bags produced by the residents of Modbury who banned plastic bags in their town further generated debate.

The Co-operative has been piloting reduction schemes in Yorkshire. Marks & Spencer is to introduce a charge for food carrier bags from May to help people break the carrier bag habit. All profits will go to its environmental charity partner to invest in greener living spaces.

Perhaps the UK government may look to follow the Irish example. Here a 15p “plastax” on carrier bags, introduced in 2002, has led to a 93% reduction in use.

In France, reusable plastic bags now account for more than half of the market. Taiwan has banned plastic bags and a threat of fines of up to £150 has resulted in a 70% reduction in their use, and a 25% cut in landfill waste.

Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags. A movement against them began in the 1980s in Dhaka where bags clogged drains in the monsoon rains, causing flooding. Meanwhile, San Francisco was the first city in the US to ban plastic bags.

Recycling is also growing in importance for the British consumer, with 5 million more people recycling their rubbish than 18 months ago. Research respondents say they recycle plastic, cardboard, paper, glass and tins as much as they can, which is made easier with home collection services; in some boroughs people could face charges for not recycling.

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