Plastic attack: retailers and CPG manufacturers move to act on plastic waste

Last month (November), the Collins Dictionary named ‘Single-Use’, referring to products that are often made of plastic and intended to be used just once, as the word of the year.

The dictionary’s compilers said the term had seen a four-fold increase since 2013 and was being used more than ever in light of global attempts to combat the damage plastic is having on the environment.

The entry of Single-Use into the lexicon as the most notable word of 2018 illustrates how quickly environmental issues and the impact of plastic, in particular, has shot up the agenda.

And shoppers are now voting with their feet it seems. IRI’s European Shopper Insights Survey found two-thirds of British shoppers identify with retail companies that clearly demonstrate their commitment towards using less packaging, respect the environment and demonstrate fairness, transparency and integrity.

British shoppers, particularly younger millennials (18-24-year-olds), are worried about the growing concern around the use of non-recyclable packaging within the FMCG retail industry, researchers found. Responses from British shoppers showed 73% would prefer to buy products with packaging that could be recycled and 67% prefer to buy products that respect the environment.

Meanwhile, new independent research commissioned by compostable packaging company TIPA found 80% of UK shoppers believe that the retail industry should be doing more to tackle the issue of plastic waste and six in 10 (63%) feel it is retailers’ responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of plastic waste. Public pressure is mounting for supermarkets to eradicate plastic use wherever possible, said TIPA. Nearly four in 10 consumers (39%) think retailers should be made to have a plastic-free aisle in every store, while over a quarter (29%) go even further and think every retail store should be completely plastic-free.

It’s against this rising sentiment and consumer desire for change that leading retailers and CPG manufacturers are uniting to drive action on plastic waste; and a North London convenience store has opened Britain’s first plastic free supermarket zones and is laying down the gauntlet to the ‘big four’.

In October 2018, the board of directors of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) - the industry body that works to encourage the global adoption of practices and standards and brings together the CEOs and senior management of some 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers, and other stakeholders across 70 countries - called for the consumer goods industry to play a leading role in eliminating plastic waste on land and sea and endorsed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy vision.

“As the Board of The Consumer Goods Forum, we recognise the pressing need for our industry to play a leading role in tackling the issue of plastic waste. We are committed to implementing pre-competitive, collaborative actions with the aim of eliminating plastic waste on land and sea,” it said.

“We recognise that the plastic waste challenge will only be solved by global collaboration between companies, national and local governments, multi-national organisations, the recycling industry and consumers. Consequently, the Board of The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) endorses the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy vision of a circular economy where no plastic ends up as waste.”

According to the CGF, several of its members are already advancing efforts that are consistent with the goals and objectives of the New Plastics Economy, including efforts to reduce problematic or unnecessary packaging and increase use of packaging that is recyclable or reusable. To complement the efforts of individual member companies, the CGF said it will identify specific areas where it can work collaboratively and pre-competitively to advance a circular economy for plastic packaging. Initial focus areas will include optimising packaging design, working with others to enable recycling and reuse systems, and inspiring consumer engagement.

The new commitment from the consumer goods industry came hot on the heels of the CGF’s Sustainable Retail Summit in Portugal, which tackled environmental sustainability including plastic waste.

Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury’s, emphasized the power of collaboration at the Summit. He said it’s not just about sources for competitive advantage, but it’s about finding ways to collaborate to drive positive, lasting change. Coupe also talked concretely about what Sainsbury’s is doing in the areas of plastic waste, forced labour and collaboration for healthier lives.

Japan's Kao Corporation illustrated re-usable plastics at its company and how it collaborates with communities and schools; while representatives from the CGF, Mirpuri Foundation and Anthesis Group talked more on the challenges ahead and the need to re-balance the conversation around plastics. Recycling is very confusing for consumers, they said. However, advocacy on this topic is now a mass movement and action towards a circular economy is necessary.

James Honeyborne and Alice Webb from the BBC talked about the BBC’s work on Blue Planet II and the internal impacts of the programme. The production was focused on connecting the audience to life beneath the waves. They wanted to “tell it like it is” and form an emotional connection with the audience. Audiences around the world have now been starkly reminded of the problems of plastics pollution. The BBC has subsequently made changes to lower its own negative climate impact. This includes a “Greener broadcasting strategy”, which features initiatives such as Meatless Monday (at the canteen), vegetable allotments on balconies and staff milk in glass bottles instead of plastic.

Portugal’s Minister of Environment, João Pedro Matos Fernandes referenced the European Parliament’s Ban on Single-Use Plastics, announced on the opening day of the Summit, and how Portugal has also banned plastic bottles and bags in government institutions. He then made a strong point that he does not believe that everything is in hands of the consumer and that retail and production merely respond to that. In many cases, the consumer only has a say at one moment of the production chain, when buying. He closed by calling on delegates to understand the opportunity is now, both for business and the environment.

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Fiona BriggsFiona Briggs Freelance retail business journalist

Fiona is an experienced journalist and editor, writing exclusive content for GCSF. She is founder of retailtimes.co.uk. She contributes regularly to NACS Magazine and writes articles on omnichannel shopper trends for Radial. Fiona is available for commissions at fionalbriggs@gmail.com

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