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Speaking Sustainably

It’s time to give Americans a new alibi

Beyond recycling, brands should be making investments in the other two Rs.

Recycling guilt


"Alibi" may not be exactly the right word, but it does a great job of capturing the guilt cover-up going on around consumption. The current alibi is recycling. In other words, "I’m not guilty of buying too much stuff, and it’s not my fault the planet is in trouble… I recycle!"

That is truly how most of us see it. According to our 2020 Pulse survey that took a deep dive on recycling (the full report is available for free here), 76 percent of Americans say that recycling makes them feel better about their purchases. And even as Americans try to reduce the number of single-use plastics they buy because of their leading environmental concern — plastics in the ocean — they feel more favorable about brands that increase the amount of recycled content in their packaging.

Our Good Company report (also available for free) tested the general favorability of 12 well-known brands. Then we revealed an environmental, social or purpose-oriented commitment made by each brand and tested favorability again. The two brands with a recycled content commitment dramatically increased favorability. Adidas went from a 10 percent most favorable rating (in other words, 10 percent of people surveyed ranked their favorability towards Adidas as a 10 out of 10) to a 17 percent most favorable rating when our survey revealed that the brand makes shoes out of ocean plastic in partnership with the non-profit Parlay for the Ocean and has committed to using 100 percent recycled polyester by 2024.

The current alibi is recycling: 'I’m not guilty of buying too much stuff, and it’s not my fault the planet is in trouble… I recycle!'

Seventh Generation fared even better. Seven percent of Americans ranked their favorability a 10 out of 10 initially. And when the survey told them that Seventh Generation had committed that 100 percent of its products and packaging will use bio-based or post-consumer recycled content by 2020, 18 percent of our survey respondents gave the brand a 10 out of 10 on favorability. So, Seventh Generation — a brand already grounded in an environmental purpose — more than doubled its favorability rating just because of a commitment to recycled or bio-based content.

Disproportionate impact

I don’t say "just because" to minimize the effort. I applaud it. My point is that commitments related to recycling and recycled content drive favorability in a way that’s disproportionate to their environmental impact. The knowledge that Apple powers all its offices and retail stores in China via solar (mounted high off the ground to ensure yaks can continue to graze) didn’t move the company’s favorability rating at all. But using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels has a more significant environmental impact than fishing plastics out of the ocean to make shoes.

But the emotional impact of reusing ocean plastics is far greater. When any of us sees a six-pack ring strangling a poor turtle’s misshapen body or a plastic bag precariously wrapped around a cute sea otter’s neck or soda bottle tops inside the belly of a once-majestic-but-now-dead bird, we feel like an accomplice to the crime. "That could be my soda bottle top," we say to ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, and we look for an alibi. Today, that alibi is recycling.

Given all of this, it makes marketing sense to check the recycling box — if you’re a consumer brand, make sure you have a recycled content story to tell. But you shouldn’t stop there. Brands should be making investments in the other two Rs. Create business models that support reduction, and launch packaging and supply-chain/system innovations that enable reuse.

Why? Because consumer faith in the recycling system is beginning to crack. In 2019, only 15 percent of us felt "not confident" that what we threw in the recycling bin was actually recycled. By 2020, that number was up to 23 percent.

If our confidence in the recycling system continues to crumble, we’ll all start looking for a new alibi, a new reason not to feel guilty for all the environmental harm we can see with our own eyes. The brands that come forward with new solutions — real ways to make the reduction and reuse of materials happen — will be the winners in the minds and hearts of Americans.

And the real winner, of course, will be the environment.

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Shelton Group

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