Managing packaging perceptions vs. realities for a TRULY circular future

by Aug 29, 2019

Shelton Stat of the Week

We polled 1,000 Americans on top environmental issues, and single-use plastics/plastic waste in our oceans pulled ahead as consumers’ foremost concern (Waking the Sleeping Giant 2019).

Managing Perceptions and Realities

In November of last year, Nestle-owned Nespresso announced that its coffee pods would be sourced from 100% sustainable aluminum by 2020. The company has long had a pouch recycling program in place (you get a pouch, fill it up with your used pods and mail the pouch back or drop it off at a retailer), and in late 2018, Nestle announced the creation of its own Institute of Packaging Sciences, in an effort to “achieve the Company’s commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.”

The company’s CEO, Mark Schneider, was doing media rounds this week talking about these efforts and told Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, “We did not want to be a passenger to what the packaging industry is dishing up. We wanted to do our own thing.”

With that as the backdrop, here are four takeaways about managing perception vs. reality:

  1. Many coffee pods are made of plastic, and those manufacturers have been scrambling to label them as recyclable. Last month, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit against Keurig about the actual recyclability of its K-cups could proceed. I believe (though I had a hard time confirming this) that Nespresso pods have long been made from aluminum, so the move to 100% certified sustainable aluminum is essentially Nestle doubling down on the material – which, I would assume, is prompted by the public outcry over plastics in the ocean. (If you haven’t seen our latest consumer insights report on this, you can get it for free here: Our survey revealed that over half of Americans would feel better about a brand that made an effort to reduce or eliminate its use of plastic. Given that, Nestle is smart to double down on aluminum – it’s what I would recommend, based on the consumer data.
  2. Of course, the problem is that it’s complicated. Not so long ago Americans preferred plastic over paper, hating the idea of cutting down trees. How many emails have you received that say, “Think before you print” at the bottom? And how many times have you seen paper towel or napkin dispensers that have said, “Remember where these come from.” Fast forward to 2019. In the same poll referenced above, we asked Americans, “If a brand that typically packages its product in plastic was rethinking its packaging materials, what ONE material do you think it should use instead?” The number one answer by far was paper, followed by cardboard. Americans – humans, really – are reactive, emotional creatures. We hate the idea of cutting down trees but we hate seeing beautiful sea creatures impaled or killed by plastic even more.
  3. The challenge for brands is in how to best play this. You can respond to consumer perceptions (it’s how brands are built, after all), but what if your material choice looks more palatable to the average consumer but actually isn’t any better from a total life cycle analysis standpoint? What will you say when that’s discovered by your consumer? My guess is that some sharp NGO or non-profit will begin to take the complicated issue of “how to decide which product is sustainable and which one is not” and make it clearer to consumers. The idea of “this product is OK because it’s recyclable” might not cut it soon, as that agreement with consumers is, indeed, fraying with the AP region’s refusal to deal with our trash and mechanically recycle it. And while 85% of Americans are somewhat to very confident that what they throw in the recycling bin is actually recycled, the mainstream media is beginning to disabuse Americans of that notion in a way that’s accessible; watch Trevor Noah’s take on it here.
  4. I find Mark Schneider’s word choice very interesting. The idea that Nestle doesn’t want to just accept what the packaging industry is “dishing out” is a compelling stand on the one hand. But on the other hand, I don’t see how we create a circular future where materials are responsibly sourced, collected, broken down and reused without everybody working together. I think it makes sense for brands to work on new technologies and ideas, but I also think materials companies way up the supply chain are working mightily on new ideas as well and the two camps should be talking to each other.

My takeaway and recommendation is this: brands, packaging manufacturers and materials suppliers should be working together to both imagine and create circular systems going forward – and they should be working together to communicate the story to consumers. In the absence of a cohesive story that all players can get behind, social media and late night comedy will fill the void and erroneous misperceptions will abound. No matter what material you represent or prefer, nobody wants that.

Americans Say ‘Enough’ to Plastic

American consumers care about the problem of plastic waste more than ever – even more than climate change, our 2019 research reveals. We polled 1,000 Americans on environmental issues, and “plastics in the ocean” ranked as their top concern. Now is the time for brands to tell their plastic waste story, and to step up and give consumers what they want: alternatives to single-use plastic – perhaps some circular options.

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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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