Plastic Waste: What The Ecological Revolution Means For Retailers

Tesni Fellows

A month traditionally dictated by Halloween outfits and premature Christmas decorations, October 2017 ignited the most momentous occasion yet in the war on plastic, revolutionizing a nation to act while beginning an ecological awakening for retailers.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet disturbed viewers on a global scale, forcing them to consider the consequences and the damage of plastic waste. Highlighting harrowing truths such as “a year’s plastic wastage weighs roughly as much as all all the world’s people” signified the extent to which we need to address this issue more than ever.

Plastic-not-so-fantastic: What the ecological revolution means for retailers

Despite the tax on plastic carrier bags adopted by many retail chains, Attenborough’s influence expanded consumers’ desire to understand what more could be done to save our planet and how to change a culture. Retailers are listening and changing the forefront of their business strategies to accommodate how people want to shop, who they want to shop with, what changes they need to implement, and what this all means for the future of retail.

What can retailers do to support the demands of customers who want to eliminate plastic waste?

Be transparent: The rise of social media has been the catalyst of change in the era of digital disruption and transformation, altering consumer behavior to encourage lifestyle purchasing. This shift has advanced through increasing societal and political issues around climate change.

As consumers are made accountable for their role regarding plastic waste, they are making more conscious changes in how they shop and who they shop with. Since 2016, consumer research on where to find the “best” products has grown by 80%, illustrating the need for quality products and ethical businesses that mirror consumer principles. However, this information is not always available to the public. For example, under an EU directive, groceries and large supermarkets are subject to share the amount of plastic they put on the market annually. Nevertheless, there is no mandate that these figures are released, so customers cannot effectively choose businesses that align with their morals. Ultimately, businesses should invest in being transparent to demonstrate their support of customer demands, enabling them to retain loyal customers and win new clients. Otherwise, inevitably, they will lose out to their competition that does.

The emphasis on lifestyle purchasing is further enhanced by focusing the change on a permanent, global level. The Cleaner Britain campaign in January 2018 emphasized eliminating avoidable plastic wastage within 25 years. Despite not all retailers being ready to admit their contributions to plastic waste, the idea of being the “first” to do so during this consumerism shift brings value to their branding in the market. Many grocery chains are showcasing their plastic-free successes. For example, Bulk Market has a bring-your-own-container (BYOC) policy, Iceland has begun a five-year plan to be the first plastic-free supermarket, and most recently, Ekoplaza opened the world’s first plastic-free aisle.

This trend is filtering into other retail areas like sports, where London-based gym 1Rebel is providing reusable plastic bottles to customers. These public initiatives allow consumers to be more knowledgeable about who to trust and ultimately, who to align with. Consumers wield the power in the buying process and are driving cultural change, meaning retailers can no longer afford to hide information about what they deliver to market.

As international players in the retail industry, it’s the responsibility of corporations to be visionary leaders in these changes, too. For example, in England, plastic bags use in retail stores has dropped 85% since a 5p tax was implemented. Global players can make a difference by listening to the customer and implementing initiatives that filter down to smaller enterprises and local merchants. With every small victory, a larger cultural shift is created.

Be ethical: Transparency in business creates a paradigm of cultural and ethical changes among retailers. The concept of mindful purchasing has become one that businesses must support across all channels to demonstrate their values and willingness to support their customers. This requires retailers to be more ethical in their products and in their brand values. For example, the fashion company Batoko produces affordable swimwear solely made from recycled plastics from the oceans. This is a unique brand proposition and demonstrates that a company’s ethical culture is just as important as its products. These creative possibilities are inspiring others to do the same and enabling wider cultural changes.

Retailers can make sustainable changes in their products by choosing to work with ethical suppliers. Businesses must start asking how they can work with suppliers to create new alternatives without driving up consumer cost. How can they implement these alternatives as norms? As customers are researching more about what they buy, they are also learning more about where materials are sourced and what role different companies play in this process. The customer relationship is going beyond product-based values, placing ethics as a priority. Retailers who invest in the suppliers they work with are able to adopt more changes as brand ambassadors.

Businesses partnering to support societal initiatives are imperative to driving change in the retail industry. Engaging socially savvy millennials allows brands to reach thousands across social channels to influence change. Business-to-business initiatives within the retail industry can also be beneficial. Within the beauty industry, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched The New Plastics Economy, combining a range of third-party support such as “corporations, local government leaders, academics, NGOs, and other stakeholders” to change how plastic is exchanged globally. Once small and large companies work together to create influential communities, other industries and global players are incentivized to make ethical changes, spread unified messaging across their platforms, and get involved to champion consumer demands.

Understand your customer: Businesses must understand their customers and how they shop when implementing changes across their omnichannel platforms. Reducing plastic is easier to accomplish in physical stores, such as with coffee shops Pret a Manger and Starbucks, which cuts the price of drinks when using a reusable cup. Nevertheless, going completely plastic-free must become an integral part of retail business models, both online and in store. By understanding the conscious changes consumers make in-store to reduce plastic, organizations can figure out how to apply those choices to their online purchasing.

How retailers can support the elimination of plastic waste

Retailers can help eliminate plastic waste by using recyclable materials, like cardboard boxes, for packaging. Tailoring and personalizing customer messaging and marketing campaigns via promotions, incentives, and content ensures you are building awareness about how you are making changes to reduce plastic waste. Additionally, promoting charities or industry initiatives you are supporting demonstrates your contributions to the wider change. Addressing the topic lends credibility and puts your business at the forefront of the agenda.

With brick and mortar here to stay, along with Instagram, Pinterest, and other social apps influencing consumer purchasing behavior, the omnichannel revolution demands retailers respond across all mediums and touchpoints to meet their customers’ demands. This enables businesses to be a step ahead and support consumers as effectively as possible.

For retailers to meet the customer’s ever-changing demands, they need to adapt. To do this, they need to be transparent and listen to their customers, especially with regard to options for reducing their plastic consumption across various purchasing methods.

Plastic is no longer being treated as a disposable material, and therefore we cannot treat it as a disposable issue. With customers at the helm of this cultural paradigm, businesses need to jump onboard the bandwagon or be left behind.

Learn more about Why Corporate Social Responsibility Matters.

This article originally appeared on The Future of Customer Engagement and Commerce.

Tesni Fellows

About Tesni Fellows

Tesni Fellows is Cross Industry Marketing for SAP Customer Experience. Her experience throughout SAP has expanded from supporting marketing initiatives across Northern Europe, to working for the Global Partner Marketing team through to supporting global industry teams. Tesni has a passion for writing content which focuses on various social topics, with a technology twist.