Speaking Sustainably

Can your brand help concerned consumers kick the single-use plastics habit?

Turtle, ocean plastics
Shelton Group

Every week six to eight articles land in my inbox about the latest reaction to single-use plastics — from bans on bags and straws to Asian countries refusing our refuse. From where I sit, it looks like the issue has reached a fever pitch.

But I work in sustainability marketing and have clients focused on this issue. How’s this landing with the average American?

That was what we sought to understand as we fielded a special-topic Pulse poll in March. The survey included 1,013 U.S. respondents, mirroring the country’s population. (The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percent.)

Specifically, we wanted to understand:

  • Are Americans aware of the concerns about single-use plastics? Are they seeing all the press, the National Geographic covers, the YouTube videos?
  • Are they disgusted in themselves? Brands? Plastics makers? Lawmakers? And what will they soon be demanding — who do they think should solve this problem?
  • Will they begin seeking out products not packaged in plastics? Will they shun brands that use plastic packaging? Will they demand that their lawmakers impose bans? Will they get loud on social media the way they have for other social issues?

What we found surprised us.

Eighty percent of Americans say they’ve heard at least a little about bans on single-use plastics. And when asked which environmental issues we’re hearing about the most — from news, social media, family and friends — plastics in the ocean is on par with climate change: 57 percent say they’re hearing about plastics in the ocean, while 59 percent say they’re hearing about climate change.

What’s more surprising, though, is that concern about plastics in the ocean edges out concern about climate change. When offered up a list of 10 environmental issues, 65 percent of Americans say they are concerned/very concerned about plastics in the ocean, compared to 58 percent for climate change.

We didn’t ask this question five years ago, but my guess based on client work we’ve done is that this wasn’t even on the radar screen for mainstream consumers a few years ago, and now it’s at the top of the environmental issue list.

This is a sticky wicket for brands. Plastics in the ocean are visible, and the visuals are emotionally compelling (and heartbreaking). More important, though, the damning images of plastics harming marine life are images of branded products. Obviously, companies don’t want their billion-dollar brands seen in this way — and consumers don’t want to be associated with brands in this way. But it’s hard to escape the reality that all of us as consumers are complicit — the images we see are of products we buy. And that makes us just as guilty.

All of that rolls up into a couple of problems for brands:

  1. "Plastics in the ocean" is the environmental issue Americans feel they actually can do something about, and one-third of Americans are what we’re calling activated. They’re all over the country but more predominantly in the West; they tend to be millennials, above-average income and educated. They are significantly more likely to say they understand what single-use plastic is and believe it to be harmful to their health, bad for business and undesirable. They are not only actively changing their behaviors to avoid single-use plastics; most describe themselves as "passionately encouraging others to avoid single-use plastics." What happens when this group of people actively does their weekly grocery run with an intention of not buying products packaged in plastic and discovers it’s impossible? How will they feel? It’s likely they’ll feel angry, defeated and/or guilty — all negative emotions brand managers don’t want associated with their brands.

  2. Today 58 percent of Americans say that when a brand uses no plastic or limited amounts of plastic in its packaging, it positively affects their opinion of the brand. So for brands that easily can move away from plastic packaging, this is an easy brand lift opportunity. But what about for those brands that can’t or don’t? At what point does the continued use of plastic packaging become a liability — a reason for consumers to feel negatively about a brand? My guess is we’re almost to that tipping point, and a reckoning of social media backlash is just around the corner.

There is indeed a correlation between awareness, concern and action. The more aware folks are, the more concerned they are and the more likely to take action they are. So awareness and activation on single-use plastics will just get stronger.

When we asked, "Who’s responsible for policing the production and use of single-use plastics?" the responsibility was fairly evenly split between ourselves, the companies we buy from and the government. My belief is this will shift, and Americans will put more of the onus on brands — if you actively try to not buy products packaged in plastics and repeatedly have the experience that your favorite brands aren’t giving you that option, who would you blame? 

Not surprisingly, then, a third of Americans say they’re likely to change brands because of packaging — and a whopping 80 percent say if they had the option to buy products in something other than single-use plastics, they would.

So give them options. Help them feel empowered and happy. And actively tell the story of what you’re doing. And that’s key — it’s hard to talk to consumers about what you’re doing on climate; it’s much easier to tell a heartwarming story about what you’re doing on single-use plastics.

So it’s a story you can tell, it’s the issue people care about, and in a world of just trying to gain one more point of market share or one more point of brand favorability, this is actually an easy button. Much easier than launching the 13th brand extension.

The moral of the story is this: The sleeping giant is waking up. And before that giant turns its wrath on brands, and before brands become the villains in the narrative, companies can make bold moves and actually gain new consumers, new brand love and new product sales.

Editor's note: Suzanne Shelton is discussing the special Pulse research at Circularity 19. You can watch her presentation June 20 on the event livestream.