When Kevin Murphy announced that all of its packaging would be made from “plastic pulled from the ocean,” it had every intention of delivering that. While the claim was doomed from the start, the company quickly communicated its mistake with tact, transparency and a plan to make it right.
Brands adopt sustainability practices for a myriad of reasons. Some might feel a genuine responsibility to reduce their impact, while others are simply trying to capture a larger market share or comply with local environmental regulations. Regardless of their primary motivation, there’s no denying the positive marketing value of these efforts. A well-executed sustainability story can attract positive press, increase sales, and grow brand loyalty among discerning consumers that incorporate these values in their purchase decisions.
In some cases, however, the tide that draws in consumers can also turn into a storm surge. Although fairly uncommon, an untrue or inflated sustainability claim — once exposed — can wreak havoc on a brand’s reputation and trigger the wrath of a greenwashed customer. While this ire is typically reserved for those brands blatantly falsifying their sustainability achievements, it can occasionally rain down upon well-intentioned companies that simply didn’t do their complete due diligence or ignored the nuances of sustainability jargon and standards.
One brand unintentionally caught in such a storm surge is Kevin Murphy — a world-class Australian beauty brand with its ethos rooted in social and corporate responsibility. For those who missed the initial reporting, the brand recently faced a situation every sustainability pioneer fears: Its sustainability story backfired as a result of broad ocean plastic claims that proved too good to be true.
How did this happen to a brand that was legitimately trying to do all the right things? The company had ambitious goals, good intentions and put in the hard work. Grounded in realism, it was willing to absorb additional costs to get started and had a successful launch met with a positive consumer response. Despite the momentum and sales growth, the success turned quickly into a brand’s worst-case scenario in which CEO Laurent Misischi found himself walking back a bold — and ultimately undeliverable — promise: cosmetics packaging made from 100 percent “plastic pulled from the ocean.”
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From a sustainability insider’s point of view, the claim was doomed from the start. There is simply not sufficient quantity, or quality, of plastic being pulled from the ocean today. Unfortunately, the Kevin Murphy team had already sold products advertised with this claim by the time it became evident that it was unachievable. Graceful as always, the company quickly communicated its mistake with tact, transparency and an action plan to make it right. Its quick response and continued integrity will undoubtedly resonate with its loyal customer base and allow the brand to regroup and recover from this unfortunate and unintended setback.
Room for mistakes, room for growth
Incidents like this are often cited by hesitant brands worried that the risk of such a misstep isn’t worth the benefits. Introducing new sustainable materials requires new supply chains and start-up costs, so any backlash following an initially successful launch inevitably deters action.
The plastic pollution crisis is too big and too urgent to be shelved any longer. Instead of vilifying those who stumble on their aggressive paths to sustainability, these trailblazers must be supported when things don’t go as planned; and more importantly, commended when they are open and forthcoming regarding their initial mistakes.
Sustainability leaders must continue recognizing and praising brands such as Kevin Murphy for their leadership, vision, commitment and transparency. Their initial enthusiasm for adopting more sustainable practices and their graceful recovery from their stumbling block is admirable. They learned the hard way; and other brands, as well as the recycling industry supplying them, need to learn and grow with them.
In this case, the issue was seemingly clear; the brand likely requested ocean plastic and was led to believe their material was “pulled from the sea.” And their partners — when facing the reality that they couldn’t deliver on that promise — brushed the details under the rug in an attempt to satisfy an ambitious brand.
Transparency is critical
Brands hear of ocean plastic and often begin their journey, like Kevin Murphy, seeking plastic pulled from the ocean that is of similar cost and quality to virgin material. Unfortunately, this is indeed a rare unicorn.
Taking a broader approach by including a wider range of sources ultimately allows brands to meet their goals while making claims they can confidently stand behind. Clear collection area classifications promote transparency and truth in marketing. All post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic usage is important as it reduces pollution while decreasing the need for virgin resin. And while ocean plastic is highly visible and has a compelling story to tell, brands should be equally proud to tout their use of waste plastic sourced from emerging markets, where it heavily pollutes the land.
There is a real opportunity to transition from a virgin-plastic-based economy to a circular one. Every action replacing virgin material during the production process with PCR — be it 100 percent or even 20 percent of total volume — is a step in the right direction. The recycling industry and their advocates have the opportunity and responsibility to recognize these successes, even when they’re not as tidy and ideal as some would like. Brands must communicate transparently, quantifying the impact for customers and investors. Working together, these stakeholders can build greater awareness among consumers around how every ton of recycled plastic — regardless of origin — contributes to a more sustainable and circular future. At the end of the day, usage of recycled plastic from any source moves us closer to the sustainable path forward we truly need.