Give them a new alibi

by Jun 16, 2021

Shelton Stat of the Week

While 39% of Americans are aware that the recycling system is experiencing challenges, 97% of those people haven’t changed their recycling habits. — Recycling Pulse 2020

Today I’ll be speaking at Recycle Colorado’s Summit for Recycling. Our VP of Research and Insights, Susannah Enkema, will facilitate a discussion on storytelling at Circularity. We’ll both be communicating a succinct point of view from Susannah: it’s time to give Americans a new alibi.

“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% 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% most favorable rating (in other words, 10% of people surveyed ranked their favorability towards Adidas as a 10 out of 10) to a 17% 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% recycled polyester by 2024.

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% of its products and packaging will use biobased or post-consumer recycled content by 2020, 18% 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 biobased content.

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 R’s. 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% of us felt “not confident” that what we threw in the recycling bin was actually recycled. By 2020, that number was up to 23%. 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.

News of the Week

How these siblings sold $18 million of bathing suits made from recycled water bottles during COVID-19 Forbes This Forbes article details the success of young entrepreneurs that have made sustainability and recycled content the “backbone” of their business. They not only have addressed a very public problem of ocean plastic but have tied it directly into a relevant product: swimwear. Sustainability is no longer a nice to have, but the price of entry as sustainable fashion continues to grow as a category. Read more…  

Is recycling a waste? Here’s the answer from a plastics expert before you ditch the effort

According to this CNBC article, consumer faith in recycling is decreasing, but it asks the question, “Does the problem lie with recycling or the way that it’s structured?” Before we give up the blue bin, we should evaluate the benefits of recycling and the problems that can be addressed – because even if recycling is losing faith, it’s still the beginning of the sustainability journey for most. Read more…

Good Company

Americans are putting their wallets where their values are. They buy brands (or those brands’ competitors) based not just on corporate behavior, but on how that behavior is perceived.

So how do you protect your bottom line and safeguard your reputation, all while making the world a better place? Well, good works. That’s the simple truth, and as you’ll learn in this report, Shelton Group has the research to back it up.

You’ll also learn how your brand can apply our insights to share your good stories in ways that captivate the public’s passion – so you can gain a market advantage.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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