Who would you choose to captain your fantasy A Team on environmental issues? In agriculture and food, Rachel Carson of “Silent Spring” comes to mind. She’s been the mother of the modern environmental movement with her early stance on abusive usage of pesticides. St. David Attenborough would make a decent Vice-skip, particularly with his revelations on destruction of our planet’s oceans which are the home of the world’s favourite meat protein – fish and seafood. Concerns about the impact of plastic waste on our environment are not new but, certainly, he has raised them to their current high levels via the BBC documentary Blue Planet II.
Evening Standard February 25th, 2018A recent UK Kantar Worldpanel survey identified that:
- 25% expressed “extreme concern” about plastic packaging in grocery;
- 42% thought it should be a priority to make all packaging recyclable;
- 21% want entirely plastic-free packaging;
- and 59% said they were trying to minimise plastic waste at home.
A large sample, these results reflect substantially more than the views of eco-terrorists, Guardian readers and Waitrose shoppers!
Grocery industry folk we meet with outside our borders often comment on the profligacy of packaging in the UK, identifying “overly-packaged” fresh foods and ready meals as being particular culprits. There’s some truth in this although it does reflect that we are an acutely convenience-driven shopping society – grab & go people with no time (or competence?!) to select the pick of the crop and, anyway, shouldn’t that be the job of the vendor? This suggests that we don’t like plastic packs but we might find it difficult to give them up.
Mind you, there’s plenty going on in the grocery industry:
- astute Malcom Walker, CEO of Iceland, was first out of the blocks promising to eliminate plastic packaging from all Iceland’s own brands by 2023;
- Waitrose has announced it will eliminate black plastic on own brand products by the end of 2019;
- Tesco has its “3 key pillars of the Little Helps Plan” committing to make all packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025;
- Nestlé and Unilever, amongst others, have endorsed a total ban on oxo-degradable plastics (those that many consumers believe are biodegradable but, in fact, leave micro-plastic waste as a hazard for fish in the oceans);
- Coca-Cola has a “World Without Waste” goal to have 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2030;
- and pesky millennial start-up companies incorporate total recyclability into the package of values that are integral to their products. Ella’s Kitchen (now, part of “Big Food” Hain Celestial) has pledged to make its baby food pouches recyclable by 2024 but, in the meantime, has an “Ellacycle” scheme in which consumers can drop off their empty Ella packs to be made into useful consumer items! Fair Play, Nestlé have picked up from customers’ front doors used Nespresso pods as part of its coffee system offer for years.
So, the grocery industry seems to be saying “We recognise there is a plastic packaging problem and we shall fix it .. umh .. in 5 or 10 or 15 years time”. Problem recognition is a good start, albeit after years of, if not denial, at least ignoring. Do you remember the contretemps associated with CFCs –used in refrigerant cooling and aerosols. In the very-early 1970s, their impact on the ozone layer was shouted out by “eco-terrorists, ne’er-do-wells, flower power people and communists”. But, it wasn’t until the 1987 Montreal Protocol that the world started to take action to address the widening hole in the ozone layer. David can remember in the 1970s blithely using spray can deodorant without a smidgeon of guilt that he was upping the skin cancer risks for his mates in Australia!
So, relax, we’ve got 15 years to fix the plastic packaging problem. Well, it took Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring” and the anti-CFC protagonists the better part of 15 years to get a hearing but, then, we didn’t have pervasive social media. If you sell a dodgy chicken in Ulaanbaatar and get rumbled this morning, it’ll be on facebook and Bloomberg News before lunch. Time has become compressed. Those that run our industry – consumers – won’t allow us the luxury of 15 years to fix the problem and particularly those impatient centennials and millennials. There’s billions of them around the world and they are astonishingly inter-connected and, increasingly, concerned about social and environmental issues. Damn them. They’re all like Veruca Salt, the spoilt brat in Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” who wants the Golden Ticket and she wants it NOW!
The issues associated with plastic packaging are analogous to those related to animal welfare, food safety, and food chain integrity, in general. Responses to consumer concerns are accelerated by the actions of major food industry players. Why the Big Boys? First, increasingly, they are aware that if their corporate interests are not consonant with the values embraced by their customers, then, they won’t remain Big Boys and they’ll certainly be perceived as Badder. Secondly, nimble start-up and smaller players will grasp social and environmental initiatives to give them a competitive edge and exacerbate the doldrums which many major companies find themselves in.
McDonald’s is a case in point. In many social areas, it’s been ahead of the curve (e.g. MSC certification on its fish). On a platform of “Food with Integrity”, USA-based Chipotle claimed “antibiotic-free chicken” and, essentially, forced or at least accelerated discussions that McDonald’s had with its chicken suppliers worldwide to follow a similar path (mind you, Chipotle went on to foul up on food safety and queer its pitch on food integrity!). McDonald’s move towards cage-free hens for its egg supplies in many countries reflected pressure from animal welfare groups and prompted a very quick response. Do click on the link below to see the YouTube clip placed by Animals Australia (2014) which is a quite brilliant example of lobbying – fair and balanced? No. Effective? Yes.
Once a Big Beast like McDonald’s or a Tesco takes a radical social, environmental, and/or animal welfare initiative (or, indeed, one on price), major competitors are forced to follow – the dominoes start to fall. What’s more, these domino tiles aren’t tiny, they’re the size of massive Stonehenge pillars and the consequential knock-on effect has massive implications for the food industry.
What’s our point? We see a classic example of the Domino Theory in Practice for the accelerated removal of plastic packaging. Concerned consumers won’t accept dates for 100% recyclability that stretch into the mid-2020s. Back to Veruca Salt, they want it NOW and, increasingly, their purchase decisions will reflect this. We’ll be seeing much less of the pervasive, anger-inducing label on pack of “not currently recyclable”. Should this be an opportunity for governments to regulate? We’ve moved on: in the food industry, it’s not governments that regulate us, it’s our customers, the major supermarket and food service chains, and they are the proxy for those with the real market power – shoppers, consumers and their families!
Plastics will take time to disappear but if they are not recyclable and/or compostable soon, the products inside these packages will not be purchased. Will consumers pay more for green packaging? NO – they’ll simply expect it and will be outraged if it is not. Ralph Early (Harper Adams University) has an insightful article in February’s issue of Food management Today: He concludes “(food businesses) derive income from the products they sell to consumers and in doing so they assume a range of moral (and ethical) responsibilities on behalf of consumers”. We concur. We’ll attain 100% recyclability much quicker than the food industry is planning to do so now. When we get there, we’ll be asking ourselves “Why didn’t we do this before?”.