Consumers care about sustainability, and it is time for businesses to listen.
With consumer voices louder than ever, and more consumers voting with their dollars, the demands for good environmental stewardship make it a must for businesses to consider and improve.
Plastics are ending up in the natural world and causing problems for animals, the environment, and people. Turtles are no longer the extent of plastic damage, with microplastics being found in the placenta of unborn babies (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/22/microplastics-revealed-in-placentas-unborn-babies) and particle pollution in the air we breath (https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/en/2018/03/how-damaging-is-breathing-in-microplastics/) the general population are more aware of the environmental effects of pollution than at any point in history.
Companies can no longer rely on consumers simply liking their product enough to ignore the global impact their unrecyclable packaging will have. Small businesses are lashing out at the social pressure to include extras in their orders – thank you cards, business cards, notes, free products, glitter, and candy are moving out of the spotlight. Movement towards sustainable, eco-friendly, and carbon neutral shipping has meant that people wishing to stand out need to be more creative in their sustainable extras.
It can be hard for businesses to know what to do. Some moves like removing straws from stores to be replaced with technically more recyclable lids still faced backlash as the new lids actually use more plastic. There is also concern amongst disability groups over the unavailability of disposable straws which are necessary for some people to be able to drink at all.
So, what can businesses do to improve their sustainability?
We need more:
Not only on a global scale, like recycle vs reuse and the actual impact of milk alternatives, but also on an individual business level.
Tracking where your business actually uses plastics, their necessity, and what follow on effects your changing may have. For example, buying every employee a reusable straw when only 10% of your work force uses straws at all, just creates waste from production.
While recycling is important, it is not the answer to everything. Finding ways to innovate our disposable attitude into a reusable one is key. Glass “fill-your-own” containers, bulk products to refill easy use bottles, and skipping the “nice to have” marketing gimmicks that don’t really add anything to the value of the product.
We need less:
Businesses have been telling customers for years, “if it doesn’t come shrink wrapped in plastic, it might not be safe”, and “if it’s not in a gift box with confetti and glitter, it’s not luxe.”
From the businesses point of view that was great marketing, but from a planet saving point of view it has been disastrous. Consumers have caught on, with unboxing videos on YouTube regularly commenting that you’re “paying for packaging”, and people posting infuriated pictures of tiny items in huge – unrecyclable – boxes.
Recycling plastic is actually more complicated than it seems. Some plastics cannot be recycled at all, and some are so difficult to recycle that centres don’t both trying. Plastics 1 (PET), 2 (HDPE) and 5 (PP) are currently recycled kerbside in New Zealand, but other types of plastic are sent to landfill, and businesses should avoid plastics 3 and 6.
Furthermore, being clear on packaging about what is and what isn’t recyclable. Adding a cardboard sleeve in order to be allowed to put a recycling symbol on the packaging to appeal to shoppers is a null game – you may sell some more initially but you’ll end up losing customers who feel lied to when they find out none of the rest of the packaging is eco-friendly.
The reason that compostable packaging isn’t the immediate answer to all our disposable problems is that the systems are not yet in place to manage a huge influx of compost.
Compostable packaging refers to things like starch-based packing peanuts which can be dissolved and added to home compost heaps safely. The nationwide infrastructure to accommodate these innovations are on their way, so have a plan in place and prepare your business for a swap when the time comes.
Know the difference when it comes to new ideas. Compostable and biodegradable aren’t the same thing. Biodegradable items are designed to decompose quickly in landfill which leads to cleaner and safer environments where landfill exists.
Get ready because change is here.
In a 2019 study by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business they addressed how much consumers actually care about sustainability. In more than 90% of categories they assessed, products with sustainability focussed marketing grew faster than their conventional counterparts – 5.6 times faster. Interestingly, though sustainability-marketed products accounted for a mere 16% of the market in 2018, they accounted for 50.1% of the market growth for 2013-2018. (https://www.stern.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/assets/documents/NYU%20Stern%20CSB%20Sustainable%20Share%20Index%E2%84%A2%202019.pdf)
It is no longer enough for businesses and companies to market their products on their own merits, products must now meet an ethical standard – and buyer dollars follow the companies who do it best.