Updated: Aug 2
Environmental sustainability has arguably been the decade's defining trend in consumer goods markets. Rising awareness about the degradation of marine habitats, loss of soil fertility, contamination of drinking water supplies, and several other ecological issues, has increased the consumer demand for products that are both ecologically sustainable and ethically sound across all major verticals.
But although the consumer pull for products with higher sustainability standards appears to have been met with a corresponding push from brand owners and packaging suppliers who have adopted sustainability as a core guiding principle for product development, several barriers remain to implement greener production, trading, and consumption.
Here, we examine how consumer attitudes on the criteria for sustainability continue to evolve and outline the structural and regulatory factors impeding manufacturers from fulfilling the promise of more sustainable products and systems.
The evolving discernment of the green consumer
Given the entrenchment of the green trend, it would be easy to assume that the demand for eco-friendly products is evenly distributed among all product verticals. However, the data suggests that there are indeed significant differences between the product groups most often in the cross-hairs of green consumers' evaluative standards. For example, a 2019 survey from GlobalWebIndex indicates that certain product categories such as household and personal care products are subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny from eco-conscious consumers than electronic devices or childcare products (Figure 1).
Differences in relative expectations for sustainable products are also a factor, with 81% expecting them to do the 'least harm possible to the environment', compared to just 55% expecting products 'made using ethical labour and sourcing practices'. At the same time, attitudes towards paying more for eco-friendly products also differ between different demographic groups, with 61% of millennials (22-35) indicating they would pay more for such products compared with only 46% of boomers (55-64).
Figure 1: Sustainability remains a key concern for Eco-consious consumers
These disparities can in large part be attributed to the maturity of the sustainability trend itself, which is reflected in consumers' growing discernment and skepticism around certain sustainability claims. This is fuelling a growing consumer preoccupation with actual metrics and measures that provide evidentiary proof to support these claims that highlight, among others, how much recycled material or renewable energy goes into a product's manufacturing.
Recycling's structural problems remain hidden from view
Despite the continued high demand for products made from recycled material, the recycling industry itself still faces major structural challenges that are limiting its effectiveness. This fact is underscored by the continued issues that persist around plastic recycling despite the 'war on plastics' declared by governments, manufacturers, and the media back in 2018.
Indeed, recycling data shows that almost as much plastic is thrown out as is manufactured (Figure 2), and very little discarded plastic is ever recycled. In the US for example, less than 10% of the plastic produced in the last four decades has been recycled according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with the rest ending up in landfills or incinerated. In 2017, this amounted to less than 3 million tons of plastic made into new products from a total of over 35 million tons of plastic produced. Furthermore, studies by the University of Georgia have calculated that nearly 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the world's oceans every year.
Figure 2: We throw out almost as much plastic as we make (metric tonnes, millions) 2015
Apart from a historic lack of political will, recycling's many structural failings can be attributed to the continued and widespread use of ineffective legacy recycling systems. These mechanical systems remain plagued by contamination issues, and the high variety in plastic waste streams often fail to adequately deal with different resins and/or the introduction of non-plastic materials housed within particular consumer products with spray or pump-action functionalities. The growing recognition of recycling's limitations is fuelling trends towards the reuse and upcycling of products which tackle the root cause of the waste crisis by preventing plastics and other materials from entering the recycling system in the first place.
Regulatory guidance has been slow to develop
The lack of clear regulatory guidance on waste and recycling standards has acted as a major barrier to multinational brands' ability to meet continually rising sustainability expectations. For example, the EU has faced considerable criticism over the last five years over its failure to establish legal authorisation of recycling processes for food contact plastics and product formats despite substantial investments in recycling plant upgrades already having taken place.
However, mounting pressure from industry groups and trade bodies has compelled governments and regulatory bodies to take action, with, for example, the European Council adopting new waste rules that legally binding recycling targets in May 2018. The new legislation sets recycling goals for packaging so as to meet clear targets for landfill reduction by 2025, and again by 2030. Furthermore, they stipulate that producers of goods for specific waste categories must accept responsibility for handling the waste stage of their products, in addition to contributing financially. The ultimate aim of this legislation is to implement higher levels of waste recycling en route to a plastics circular economy.
Collaboration is needed to lift the sustainability stakes
Given that the elimination of waste materials in landfills is unlikely to occur for some time to come, short-term improvements to recycling systems must be undertaken by a broad coalition of manufacturers, brand owners, and other stakeholder groups. It is also important to note that, the headwinds facing the recycling industry will be further tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, as evidenced by the plastic industry and trade groups lobbying the US Congress for $1 billion in the next pandemic stimulus bill to fund municipal and state recycling infrastructure.
Figure 3: Key recycling indicators by material type, US 2019
For their part, consumers are demonstrating their readiness to dictate the pace of product sustainability. For instance, they are increasingly favouring products made from materials that are more readily recyclable, such as aluminum, glass, and recycled paper, as awareness grows of the disparities in recycling rates between different container types (Figure 3). In the UK for example, a recent YouGov report found that 51% of customers are more likely to switch to a drink in a recyclable bottle if the new drink is comparable in terms of price, consistency, and taste, with 30% viewing recyclable packaging as more important when choosing a drink to buy than the brand (26%) or the aesthetics (9%).
Brands, then, must act to close this perceived 'eco-deficit' between their sustainability claims and the actual, measurable, and tangible sustainable attributes that are not only built into the products themselves, but also hardwired into upstream purchasing agreements and downstream product development. By forging forging close-knit partnerships with packaging companies, brands can ensure they are helping to amplify their sustainability strategies, while packaging companies must target specific sectors and evolve to address consumers’ primary environmental concerns.