SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

Product, Service & Design Innovation
Of Plastics and People:
Suzanne Shelton Shines Light into the Consumer Mind

Through intensive research, Suzanne Shelton and her firm have gained insight into the ‘what next’ brands are looking for: less conversation, more action. And consumers are actively asking for more sustainable options — not alongside, but in place of traditional products and packaging.

Major corporations are wondering if they really understand what today’s consumer knows about plastic usage and its detrimental effects on the environment. And many of those brands are concerned with their ability to, for example, pivot into new packaging so they can meet the demands of an increasingly savvy consumer, while staying both relevant and profitable.

According to Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group: “Consumers don’t really differentiate between ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate responsibility.’ They just want to buy from companies that are doing right by people and the planet. The brands we buy are extensions of our personal brands — they’re manifestations of how we want to be seen in the world. Increasingly, consumers want to be personally seen as people who are doing the right thing.”

Shelton Group conducts quantitative research into questions such as, ‘Is middle America aware of plastic waste the way people in the industry are, and what do they expect brands to be doing about it?’ and brings those real-world answers to their clients.

While most brands know by now that sustainable initiatives and social/environmental responsibility are table stakes, fluctuating vernacular and competing objectives make communication daunting. Shelton sees the next wave of brand transformation addressing plastic waste. While this topic is at a fever pitch right now, her firm has been conducting market research over the last year to assess what exactly middle America knows about it, and how they feel about what they know.

It turns out that yes, people are “woke” to this, and more than you would expect. But Shelton is quick to point out the foreboding issue attached to their awareness.

“As more and more Americans decide they don’t want to contribute to the single-use plastics problem and try to shop differently, they’ll immediately experience a feeling of being ‘stuck’ that we think will result in a backlash towards brands. People will demand other options, and the brands that get in front of this will win in the end.”

Suzanne Shelton (center) discusses consumer preferences at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

The consumer starts to lose interest when brands and suppliers justify and defend their packaging. Social and mainstream media have given consumers the information; they know wildlife is in peril and that we are creating mountains of trash. They don’t want to hear it anymore, Shelton says; they just want brands to figure out how to do it better and keep single-use plastics out of the ocean. She notes, too, that our sustainability community needs to be mindful of our language on this issue.

“I hear a lot of ‘plastic is bad’ and that’s just not true. Nobody wants to get rid of plastics in an operating room or a construction site — they save lives and make homes more energy efficient! We need to keep the conversation focused on single-use … and that’s not just plastics; it’s all materials and the disposal mentality that we’ve basically trapped folks in.”

Shelton sees a way to change this, and has great enthusiasm that brands will be able to alter their business models — in time. It’s a multistep journey toward this transformation, and one part is consumer education. She notes that there is no perfect material. Every packaging form has its pros and cons, and their best use is truly case by case. Getting the public to understand that will be challenging given all the discord over materials and circular recycling streams. But while that is still an area of debate, Shelton sees a second part of the transformation successful through aiming at consumer convenience.

Citing TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky’s approach with Loop as a very plausible one, Shelton loves his references to “bringing back the milkman,” and his call to connecting people to a familiar system we just haven’t used in a while. Familiarity reduces barriers to trial, and that’s what makes the “get a box on your doorstep” approach so workable — it’s a model so many know so well.

“What we have in our favor is, 41 percent of people want to be seen as someone who buys ‘green’ products; and this is not fringe were talking about — this is mainstream America. People do put their money where their mouth is on this topic, but it’s selective. Think of the in-me / on-me products; moms will pay more for those touching their kids. They will tell us in our qualitative research that it’s insanely expensive, but they feel the need to protect their children. With millennials, it’s often about how they are feeling at the moment. If they have the money right there to afford the greener options, they buy them, but cost sometimes trumps purpose with this group.”

Price over purpose is a hard truth and one many brands know firsthand. With the onus squarely on corporate America to provide better options, many have come out with sustainable or ‘better’ versions of their most purchased products. The material and ingredient changes going into this ‘better’ version come at a cost that the brands have passed along to the consumer, and seen time after time the traditional product purchased over the more sustainable version. But Shelton posits the questions her research has uncovered: If these brands can make a ‘green’ version, why are they still making the non-green one? She continues channeling consumers: “Why does the consumer need to do the research, and why are they being tasked with making the decisions?”

When these questions are followed by astounding statistics — such as 86 percent of US consumers expect a company to stand for something, and 67 percent want that something to be linked to what that company provides (i.e. plumbing companies should have water-conservation initiatives and candy brands should focus on obesity issues or fair farming practices) — Shelton makes a very strong case for brands expediting their sustainable roadmaps.

As consumers and corporations move toward commonalities for social and environmental practices, the once-vague or divergent sustainability roadmaps for each are growing closer. While the conversation has reached a turning point, with all parties understanding there is an issue with single-use materials, plastics have taken the lead among both brands and consumers as the hot-button issue.

Through intensive research, Shelton and her consulting firm have gained insight into the ‘what next’ brands are looking for: less conversation, more action. Consumers are aware of the detrimental impacts of single-use packaging and they are expecting the power players to move beyond justifications for it. They are actively asking for more sustainable options — not alongside, but in place of traditional products and packaging. It’s time, according to mainstream America, to just make better products.