Do consumers really care about saving the world?

‘Do consumers really care about saving the world?’ Posed in a purposefully obtuse manner by a member of the audience, it nevertheless managed to generate an animated response from the panel that we were asked to join at the annual FUTR Summit earlier in the year.

Reading the recently-released Waitrose Food & Drink Report, it’s undeniable that in certain areas consumers do care enough to change their ways. According to it, the BBC’s Blue Planet II has ushered in ‘the era of the mindful consumer’, with a surprising 88% changing the way they use plastics after seeing the final episode of the series. A staggering and timely impact.

Yet it’s clear from our research with two thousand nationally-representative consumers that, in many other areas, there is a big gap between what consumers say and do – only a quarter of 25-54 year-olds have paid more for a brand or product that is environmentally friendly, while a fifth have increased their spend for a brand or product that gives back to charity or society. The coterie of consumers who are happy to change their shopping habits is still in the minority.

Many have made practical changes such as using more of their own bags when shopping (64%) and increased their household waste recycling (44%). However, only 25% have used more products made from recycled material, 15% have switched to a renewable energy provider, while just 5% have bought a hybrid/electric car.

Keen to carry on the debate, we invited 20 founders of challenger food and drink brands to join us for our latest Founders’ Collective roundtable. To get us thinking, we asked Louise Stevens, Head of Circular Economy at Innocent, to explain how she has helped the brand navigate the changing landscape and retain its brand value of ‘leaving things better than we find them’.

As a leader in this space, Innocent has trialled many different approaches. Louise said she’s been happy to do this as long as customers are taken on the journey. ‘If you explain why you are doing things properly, customers react really positively and so even frustrating U-turns can create positive outreach’. Innocent currently makes 50% of bottles from recycled plastic and aims for them to be made from 100% renewable materials by 2022.

Innocent was an early advocate of B-Corp, a ‘great benchmark for the journey we are on’. A certification that originated in the US, B-Corps are businesses that balance purpose and profit and are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions. More than anything, they are a community of leaders driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.

Two of our brands, PROPER and Mindful Chef, have become B-Corps in the last year. In our research, only 5% of consumers have come across a B-Corp business but this will change as the community becomes increasingly vocal. For our brands, the biggest impact has been on their team culture as they attract people that subscribe to their company values. These people are happier and stay longer.

Ian Bates of Reel Brands, a consultancy helping food and drink brands create more sustainable packaging, then took us through the options available to businesses. He was particularly upbeat about the innovations available to brands. ‘The petro-chemicals industry is really powerful and only recently are manufacturers of alternative sustainable materials beginning to gain traction. There are lots of great options out there.’

‘But it is vital to understand the full lifecycle impact of a piece of packaging. For example, compostable packaging sounds good but consumers are a long way off going to the back of their garden and throwing a plastic bottle into a compost heap.’

Ian talked us through the new legislation being introduced that places a tax on plastics. By 2021, there will be a ban of straws, ear buds, stirrers, expanded polystyrene and oxy-degradable plastics and, by 2025, single-use plastic packaging must have 30%+ recycled content to avoid being taxed. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) will see polluters paying 80% of the costs of collection, sorting, recycling and disposal of packaging waste.

There was an acknowledgement around the table that consumers are confused as to what is recyclable, with commonly-used symbols on packaging misleading. To complicate matters further, the UK’s 408 councils each have their own recycling policies, although the Government has promised to unify these by 2021.

There was also a lively debate about the use of plastic packaging. Founders felt there was a big gap between consumer expectations and the packaging options available to supply a great product experience with a long shelf life. Plastic was seen as incredibly versatile and hard to replace.

For us at Piper, we are constantly looking to work with founders to grow brands that help consumers look after the world around them. We recognise the need for trade-offs and compromises in balancing sustainability and consumer expectations, as well as ensuring prices stay competitive.

This requires careful planning to guard against expensive and embarrassing backtracks. As a fellow FUTR panel member pointed out, not everyone has McDonald’s’ brand loyalty to help them when having to admit that their new ‘eco-friendly’ paper straws are not actually recyclable.

At Piper, we are constantly looking to work with founders to grow brands that help consumers look after the world around them. We recognise the need for trade-offs and compromises in balancing sustainability and consumer expectations, as well as ensuring prices stay competitive.

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