How the plastic ocean captured the global conscience and the cause went mainstream
Malcom Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point" and argues that "ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses do." Are we now witnessing the same phenomenon when it comes to the environment?
In January we included The Plastic Ocean as one of five trends in the MCCP annual Trendstream report and presentation, anticipating that the world was finally going to open its eyes to the damage of plastic and, in 2018, it did. However, no one could have predicted the scale of the response.
So, what was the tipping point? What does this trend say about wider culture and consumer behaviour?
The era of activism
Outrage in everyday life is more obvious than ever thanks to the wide variety of platforms people have at their disposal. According to our trends Partner, Foresight Factory, 57% of consumers will boycott a brand that doesn’t share their views.
While there was an increasing global consciousness of the environmental issues we face, the immense impact of BBC’s Blue Planet II, which aired in December 2017 and was seen by more than 14 million viewers could not have been predicted. Environmental groups had campaigned on this issue for years, however footage which showed a female pilot whale clinging to her stillborn calf who Sir David Attenborough suggested had been killed by plastic, prompted political leaders to promise to tackle the plastic in our oceans and the wider consumer world to respond as quickly.
The thing about trends is, they are usually emotionally driven. They have their own currency and their own momentum and as the year went on, this momentum gathered pace.
Brands want to attach themselves to causes
This month the European Parliament voted for a EU-wide ban on single-use plastics such as straws, cutlery, cotton buds and balloon sticks.
While structured CSR policies are important there is also a need for brands to be able to react to the current activist zeitgeist as it emerges. It is becoming more and more difficult for brands to remain impartial on social issues as consumers expect action and a stance that matches their view.
This year, Lidl Ireland pledged to discontinue the sale of single use plastics – including plastic drinking straws, disposable cups and glasses, plates, cutlery and plastic stemmed cotton buds.
They will also remove black plastic packaging from its entire fruit and vegetable range before Christmas. The packaging, which cannot be recycled, will be scrapped from fresh fish products by February 2019, followed by fresh meat, poultry and cured meat ranges before August.
92 McDonald’s restaurants in Ireland have already taken steps to get rid of plastic straws and replace them with paper ones, with completion set for 2019.
And other brands are innovating to solve the issues caused by their brands - Carlsberg, in response to the environmental damage caused by six-pack rings and wrapping, are pioneering a new way for beer cans that can be held together solely by glue - a move that is set to reduce their use of plastic to package the product by more than 75%.
The Brand Backlash: Moving the conversation upstream
The point now is the conversation is moving upstream and responsibility should not only lie with the person who consumes the products but with who is producing them in first place.
For example, Coca-Cola, which uses 120bn bottles a year, says it will collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030. It will also aim to make all of its packaging with an average of 50 per cent recycled content by the same date.
Other big brands such as Adidas are pioneering the repurposing of ocean plastic with a product range that is constantly developing new products, P&G created Fairy Ocean Plastic bottle made entirely from post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic and plastic recovered from the ocean to raise awareness of ocean pollution and Dell has created the first commercial-scale global ocean plastics supply chain, processing plastics found on beaches and using them as a part of their new packaging system.
There are also opportunities in the market for plastic alternatives. While reusable coffee cup company KeepCup originally launched in Melbourne in 2009 before extending its footprint to the UK in 2012, its business has doubled in size since its launch in England with the company attributing the growth to the plastic debate.
Eco-friendly stainless-steel straw brand Turtle Savers, recognised a gap in the market earlier this year with 8.5 billion plastic straws thrown away every year in Britain alone. The company has created a branded straw that is to launch in the fourth quarter and will be available wholesale to retailers and to consumers via Amazon and Facebook Marketplace and launching in the UK, Canada, the US and Australia.
How we bring this to life for clients in MCCP
This trend highlights two opportunities around which our clients can deliver positive impact for their consumers.
The development of alternative processes and innovative approaches to packaging give brands an opportunity not only to lessen their negative impact on the environment but also to showcase their commitment to customers. Our innovation approach puts the customer at the centre and we innovate and develop ideas and products against these consumer needs.
At MCCP we believe in transforming brands, both inside and out. This plastic trend highlights not only a need for an innovative approach to product development and user experience but also a need to change mindsets within businesses. Brands with purpose are shown to be far more effective in retaining and acquiring talent. It is essential to have a robust internal brand that holds a purpose, that is true to the business. Every business can make a greater effort to lessen their plastic footprint, and for prospective future employees this will be essential and attractive. We develop bespoke strategies for business to be prepared for these shifting dynamics.
Next year the trend is set to continue its momentum especially with the news this week that the inevitable has happened. While Microplastics have already been found in birds and fish and whales, in drinking water, beer, table salt, and seafood, they have now been found in human stools for the first time, according to a study suggesting the tiny particles may be widespread in the human food chain.
Consumers will continue to expect brands to reflect their beliefs and will object if not. Brands will need a core purpose and visible set of beliefs that defines who they are so that consumers can choose to be with them or not and brand owners need to recognise the key cultural and business trends in their strategic planning processes.
At MCCP we are looking forward to our annual Trendstream event in early 2019 and what the next year brings.
Jo Wood is a Strategy Director in MCCP - transforming brands to enable them to grow by understanding the opportunity of the role their brand can play in the lives of consumers.