Don’t let your brand be a baby wrapped in plastic

I had the honor of kicking off the Circularity conference in Atlanta last month. Click here to go to an infographic that summarizes the idea I presented (and feel free to use it anytime you need to make a case internally for a circular approach). Read on for more of what I said at Circularity … and to learn what a baby wrapped in plastic has to do with your sustainability marketing efforts!

Quick question: Do you think recycling is good for the environment?

My guess is that your answer aligns with the answer we get from most people living in America: A whopping 95 percent of us think recycling helps the environment, and 75 percent of us believe recycling is the best thing we can do for the environment.

But would you agree with that? Is recycling the BEST thing we can do for the environment? Probably not. So why do our friends and neighbors think that?

Because that’s what we’ve told them to think.

All of us involved in sustainability communications regularly telegraph the message to the public at large that “recycling = good for the environment.” We put the chasing arrows everywhere we can. We add compelling messaging to packages to encourage recycling. We’ve even created a whole new series of images to teach folks how to recycle correctly. And there’s all the advertising encouraging us to do the right thing for the planet by recycling.

So, today, if you ask Americans, “What type of packaging would you be most likely to buy?”— and we have asked recently — they will tell you, “a package that is recyclable” followed by “a package that’s made from recyclable materials.” It’s the classic Henry Ford statement: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.” Recycling is the system we’ve sold the public, and they’ve bought in.

You might be thinking, “That’s good, right? I mean, if people think they’re doing their part by recycling, that’s good!”

Actually, this is a problem for most consumer goods makers.

The promise we’ve all made to Americans is: “You don’t have to feel bad about all the stuff you buy, just recycle it, and it’s all good!” This has quite literally kept our economy running — 70 percent of our GDP comes from consumption — and Americans have bought in. A majority of us (76 percent) say recycling makes us feel better about all the stuff we buy. So, that’s the promise … keep on buying, toss your waste in the recycling bin, and we’re all good.

The problem, though, is that we’re starting to not believe recycling actually works. In 2019, 14 percent of Americans were not confident that what they tossed in the recycling bin was actually being recycled. In 2020, that number increased to 23 percent. As of February, it’s increased again — 30 percent of us are not confident that our recyclables are being recycled. And 49 percent of us flat-out say the recycling system is not working well. P.S. The more we know about how recycling actually works, the more pessimistic we are about the current system.

And if you’re thinking this is just about plastics, you’re partly right. Our concern about plastics in the ocean has grown on the other side of the pandemic. As of February, 76 percent of us rate ourselves a 10 on a scale of 1-10 about concern related to plastics in the ocean, meaning we’re Extremely Concerned. And 90 percent of us believe plastic trash is contaminating waterways more than ever before.

So, yes, concerns about plastic waste have us feeling really uncomfortable, but the belief system that’s cracking around recycling isn’t just about plastics. Only 52 percent of us are very confident that the paper we’re putting in the recycling bin is actually being recycled … and that’s the one recyclable we’re the most confident about.

Let me recap a bit. We love the idea of recycling because it’s our get-out-of-guilt-free card. We want to assuage the guilt. We like buying stuff and don’t want to feel bad about it. In fact, 42 percent of us want to be seen as someone who’s buying eco-friendly products … so we want to virtue-signal through our purchases. But we increasingly don’t believe the recycling system works, and we’re increasingly freaked out about the environmental impacts of waste.

That means we are uncomfortable, and we’re looking for an alternative, a new hall pass. A new way to not feel bad for participating in the economy.

And therein lies an opportunity. An opportunity to both change the system AND change the message.

It’s already started. Starbucks is piloting a reusable cup program. SC Johnson has been steadily rolling out concentrated versions of its most iconic cleaning brands. The Body Shop installed refilling stations across 800 stores. Levi’s launched its “Buy Better. Wear Longer.” campaign, essentially declaring the intention to sell fewer, more durable products. And further up the value chain, our friends at Eastman have figured out how to make circular, reusable plastics a reality right now. The next step is for everyone in the consumer goods sector to work together to Biggie-size these systems changes. Work with your supply chain, your regulators and even your competitors to overhaul the way we do consumption.

And then engage citizens to be a part of it. And should you face any naysayers in your organization, remind them that we’ve gotten people to change behaviors before. Several times. And messaging has played a key role.

Our new infographic shows how we’ve used messaging over the last 80 years to motivate people to “Use it up and wear it out,” then “Buy whatever you want and then throw it away,” then “Don’t be a litterbug,” then “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and, finally, simply, “Recycle.”

Now it’s time for our messaging and our systems to come full circle. It’s time to get back to using it up and wearing it out. The discomfort our friends and neighbors are beginning to feel about their contribution to the waste problem is much like the discomfort we feel when we see the old Cellophane ad featuring a baby wrapped in plastic.

Messaging, behaviors and systems are all about context. And much like the context of the 1950s and ‘60s made a baby wrapped in plastic OK then but horrifying now, over the next five to 10 years, the idea of throwing away single-use packaging, purchasing fast fashion and engaging in unfettered consumption and disposability will grow increasingly uncomfortable. It’s already happening. Remember the 42 percent of Americans who want to virtue-signal with their purchases? The brands that enroll people into circular approaches will be the brands people want to virtue-signal with — that will be the new get-out-of-guilt-free approach — and the brands that continue a linear, single-use, waste approach will be seen as distasteful. As distasteful as a plastic-wrapped baby.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t let your brand become a baby wrapped in plastic.

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