Beyond the carrier bags

The success of the 5p carrier bag charge shows just how influential supermarkets can be in encouraging shoppers to adopt sustainable practices. How can they innovate to keep up the momentum asks Shilen Patel, CEO of Independents United.

From scare tactics to uncomfortable truths, environmentalists have long debated the merits of the various ways to motivate people to think and shop greener. Sometimes, however, the most effective route to collective change is a simple prompt at the right moment. Nowhere has this been more starkly evidenced than in the huge reduction in supermarket sales of single-use plastic carrier bags following the introduction of a statutory 5p charge in October 2015.

The UK’s seven largest supermarkets are now issuing 83% fewer of these bags – the equivalent to each person using 25 in 2016/2017 compared to 140 in the year preceding the introduction of the charge. It has also led to millions of pounds being donated to charities as a result.

Tesco, emboldened by the success of the 5p charge in persuading people to bring their reusable bags, has now gone a step further, dropping the single-use bags entirely. It is instead offering shoppers a Bag for Life made from 94% recycled plastic for 10p.

Although Tesco isn't the first supermarket to push more expensive reusable bags (Aldi's jolly versions are becoming a fixture on the nation's campsites for example), Tesco's enormous reach means that this move will have a large impact.

Evidence shows there is another reason behind the supermarket's move – its shoppers have been the slowest to embrace change and start reusing bags. The retailer sold 637m 5p bags in the year 2016-2017, compared to 51m at Sainsbury's and 165m at Asda.

The move by Tesco shows that grocery retailers are aware not only of their societal obligations but also that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this topic. The phrase 'plastic footprint’ is no longer just uttered in activist circles, with 84% of global consumers stating that they seek out environmentally-responsible products wherever possible.

Clearly, there are reputational benefits (and associated profits) for brands that make demonstrable efforts to both clean up their own act and facilitate more sustainable choices amongst the buying public. But research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation also provides evidence of the clear economic argument for sustainable packaging through its claim that adopting circular economy principles would create a net benefit of €1.8 trillion for Europe by 2030 - or €0.9 trillion more than in the current linear development path.

A sustainable approach, backed by a focus on innovation, has the potential, therefore, to deliver benefits that are felt far wider than just the environment - creating innovative new products for consumers and generating profits for retailers. FreshRealm’s reusable refrigerated takeaway delivery packaging is just one example of this, demonstrating that innovation can hit multiple goals.

The fact that only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled worldwide shows the extent of the opportunity for retailers (and their suppliers) to provide some clever new options for shoppers. This could bring grocers significant competitive advantages for those willing to invest.

In many cases, the best new examples of sustainable packaging are emerging from smaller companies and start-ups. These organisations' structures lend themselves to the business of taking risks: their leaders have often started the businesses because they are motivated to come up with greener alternatives to current packaging.

Such an example is Florida craft beer brand Saltwater Brewery, which came up with the idea of creating edible and biodegradable six-pack beer can holders. Made from barley and wheat grain, by-products of the brewing process, these holders were designed to reduce the impact of plastic can holders can have in our oceans.

The innovation delivered the small brewery a heap of publicity, including backing from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). The charity observed that Saltwater had 'set an example for other beverage companies'.

Then there's ifoodbag – reusable and recyclable paper bags that can refrigerate and freeze food. Created by a Swedish start-up of the same name, the bags are predicted to transform the energy efficiency of online grocery delivery services.

In some cases, larger organisations have been able to team up with more entrepreneurial sustainability experts, bringing the latter's expertise to a wider audience. Beer maker Carlsberg has worked with small Danish firm EcoXpac, for example, to produce a beer bottle made of wood fibre, that was unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015 and is due to go on sale in a pilot project next year.

It will be interesting to see how Carlsberg manages this process. In some larger companies, the tendency to standardise processes can be at odds with bringing innovative new products to market. And yet it is the large manufacturers and retailers who must make these changes if sustainable packaging is to become a mainstream, rather than niche, development.

Carlsberg has facilitated an entrepreneurial spirit within its corporate walls by setting up the Carlsberg Circular Community, a co-operation between it and partner companies with the aim of creating a zero-waste economy.

Initiatives such as this are vital in order to reduce the $80-120 billion worth of plastic going to waste globally each year. Tesco's Bag for Life initiative really is just the start.

Shilen Patel

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: | ASDA | brewery | Circular economy | ellen macarthur foundation | Energy Efficiency | packaging | tesco | zero waste
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