Published 4 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: With the Loop platform, dozens of major consumer brands are aiming to shift away from single-use packaging | Loop
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
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
Shelton sees the next wave of brand transformation addressing plastic waste.
While this topic is at a fever
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
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
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
“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
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
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
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
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.”
is a hard truth and one many brands know firsthand. With the onus squarely on
corporate America to provide better
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
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
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.
Published May 1, 2019 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Alison Ferolo has over a decade of content creation and brand storytelling experience; most recently focused on the cultural shift toward a more sustainable and responsible future.