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The war on plastic – the first act of an ethical retail revolution

Date: March 25, 2019

Category: Industry news

Author: Tim Haidar

High-profile campaigns around the damaging effects of plastics on the marine environment have turned the tide of public opinion, and brands and retailers are listening

Sustained media coverage has seen plastic pollution rocket to the top of the agenda for an increasingly environmentally conscious consumer base.

The statistics are damning. Approximately 8m metric tonnes of plastics flow into the world’s oceans every year. More than 2m disposable plastic bags are used, and a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. A million seabirds and marine mammals are killed by plastic waste every 12 months.

Bakelite – the first plastic made from synthetic components – was first produced in 1907. In the century since its creation, it is estimated that 8.3bn metric tonnes of plastics have been manufactured. That is more than a tonne of plastic for every person living on Earth today.

According to Retail Week, four of the top six ethical trends for 2019 are a reaction to the sheer volume of single-use plastics in our daily lives, from the food we buy to the clothes we wear. The retail industry is replying to this change in the consumer mindset with a raft of measures.

Industry response

As 2018 unfolded, it became a landmark year for plastics reform. In January 2018, British supermarket chain, Iceland, vowed to end single-use plastic packaging for its in-house products by 2023. In May of the same year, it adopted a new Plastic Free Trust Mark for its own-label goods.

Co-op committed to replacing the 60m single-use plastic bags distributed in its UK stores with compostable alternatives and Lidl vowed to eliminate its use of non-recyclable black packaging for fruits and vegetables.

Much of the movement towards limiting plastic was prompted by a Which? survey, that showed as much as 30 per cent of plastic packaging used in UK supermarkets was not easily recyclable.

On a smaller scale, a franchise of the grocery chain, Budgens, became the UK’s first convenience store with plastic-free zones in November 2018, and a plethora of independent stores like Bulk Market, Unpackaged and Re:Store operate a “Bring Your Own Container” approach to product purchasing.

The ethical shopper and the circular economy

The revolt against single-use plastic is just one of the many issues being taken to brands and retailers by a new generation of ethical consumers.

While the concept of a circular economy is far from new – an ecosystem which emphasises recovery and regeneration of materials at the end of a product’s lifecycle, rather than the traditional three-step model of create, use and dispose – it has been illusory in the commercial sphere.

More principled and ecologically aware than their predecessors, the ethical shopper expects a more accountable brand of consumption than previous generations, seeking to do business with companies that are making corporately and socially more responsible choices – companies that are more circular than linear.

This so-called “responsible consumerism” – which has alternatively been viewed as activism or a form of direct democracy for commerce, in which purchasers vote with their earnings – is set to become more prevalent in 2019 than ever before.

Enabling change

The main facilitating factor in this conscious-consumer revolution, is the ready availability of detailed product information. Using a number of different methods, shoppers can access many sources of product-specific data to use as a differentiator and cherry-pick between the goods they buy.

Whether it is the plastic content of a product, its designation as a free-trade item, allergen contents or where its constituent parts were sourced from, the ethical shopper can actively seek out the finer points in order to make decisions driven by want, necessity and conscience.

Although product information is obtainable, it has been a challenge for brands and retailers to make it accessible and easy to communicate. Disparate IT systems and differing data-entry criteria from retailer to retailer have made a seemingly straightforward procedure more complex.

New data platforms like GS1 UK’s productDNA have simplified the process, allowing all stakeholders to enter their product attributes into a shared system using a common language. Information only has to be uploaded and independently verified once to be shared many times with multiple platform users.

A win-win scenario?

As well as giving the ethical shopper the ability to pick and choose between products, the same methodology that aids accurate and up-to-date product information also allows retailers to streamline their procedures and offer a more personalised shopping experience.

According to professional services firm, Deloitte, more than one third of consumers were interested in purchasing personalised products or services, and almost half were willing to wait longer to receive a tailored offering.

With one in every five retail-bound pounds now spent online, data at the fingertips of a customer is a crucial element in the modern-day sales environment.

The war on plastic, and the evolution of a more demanding and discerning customer base may well be feeding a virtuous cycle that is making retail a more considerate and accountable place.


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