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Who cares about plastic?

Kantar Worldpanel collaborated with Europanel and GfK to survey more than 65,000 people in 24 countries, exploring how they feel about the use of plastics by FMCG companies.

From simple measures such as charging for plastic carrier bags or installing recycling hubs, to more complex arrangements like removing packaging from the supply chain, retailers are increasingly aligning their strategies with shifting consumer attitudes towards waste.

But are the manufacturers playing their part? Kantar’s massive global survey, Who Cares, Who Does? leaves this question open.

“Our research found that nearly half (48%) of all consumers worldwide expect manufacturers to take the lead, saying they have the most responsibility to act on these issues,” says Natalie Babbage, Global LinkQ Director at Kantar’s Worldpanel Division.

“And making changes to account for this is clearly a matter of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’, for all businesses.”

But retailers and manufacturers can’t expect consumers to jump to their brand purely for their green credentials — and being ‘green’ or sustainable means different things in different markets.

“By understanding the ‘green gap’ between those who say they care, and those that actually do something about it, we can unlock the opportunities of environmental concern, and help brands play an important role in shaping our future planet,” says Babbage.

In the eyes of consumers, retailers are doing a better job of reducing plastic waste than manufacturers. Driven by a series of high-profile initiatives across the globe, 18% of consumers can name at least one retailer taking positive action.

What do consumers want?

When it comes to tackling plastic waste, there are a number of actions that consumers want to see from retailers.

Top of the list (43%) is that consumers want to see less plastic packaging used for fresh food. They would also like the removal of plastic bags for fruit and vegetables (39%), the use of alternatives to plastic packaging for fresh food (36%) and, for any plastic packaging that does have to be used, for it to be 100% recyclable (32%).

Factors such as financial support for global initiatives – the cleaning of plastic from the oceans, for example – ranked lower (16%), suggesting that consumers would rather see direct action that impacts their experience in the shopping aisles.

Taking action on plastic waste is imperative for manufacturers and retailers. Pressure from shoppers and a raft of strict new legislation from local governments means ignoring this issue could be fatal for brands.

The true warrior consumers, called ‘Eco Actives’ in the report, make up 16% of all shoppers. Eco Actives expect manufacturers to lead the way, and Kantar predicts this group will continue to expand as awareness grows.

“We’re already seeing small reductions in spending on meat, bottled drinks and categories such as beauty wipes,” says Babbage. “As Eco Actives become more prominent, some categories could experience reduced growth.

“If we take a market that is clearly impacted, such as fresh meat in the UK, we can see this group’s decisions have removed 1.4% from the total market value of the category. If this trend continues and the group grows to the size we see in Germany, fresh meat could drop by up to 4% in the next two years.”

Only a few brands are currently offering products targeting the Eco Actives group, but the study shows there is high demand for eco-friendly products that are competitively priced and readily available.

But the report notes that consumers are often not willing to pay more for these products and the most engaged group does not necessarily have a higher income than others. The responsibility, therefore, is on manufacturers to offer a competitive, price-sustainable option.

How should the industry react?

There are key actions that all manufacturers and retailers should focus on if they are to meet these consumer demands:

Identifying eco-consumers

Based on the results of the survey, Kantar created four unique customer segments. Each one highlights how different sections of the global population view environmental challenges—and how it impacts the choices they make in-store. These are Eco Actives, Eco Believers, Eco Considerers and Eco Dismissers.

• Eco Actives Making up 16% of global consumers, these shoppers consistently work to reduce their levels of plastic waste. They always, or frequently, take active steps to improve the environment. They are more than twice as likely as other groups to avoid meat, plastic bottles and plastic packaging. They are also twice as likely to buy reusable beauty products than the next group, Eco Believers.

This segment peaks at 21% in Western Europe but falls as low as 7% in Asia.

Eco Actives are vocal advocates of environmentally- friendly behaviour on social media. They have a “bottom-up approach”, believing that it is consumers themselves who bear the most responsibility for change than any other group.

Eco Actives are twice as likely as Eco Believers to frequently perform environmentally-conscious actions. The majority of Eco Actives will avoid using plastic bags (80%) or single-use plastic drinking bottles (75%); 68% will use reusable beauty products and 66% will try not to buy products in plastic packaging, while 36% will avoid buying meat.

Eco Actives are far more prominent in countries with higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Nations such as Germany, Austria and the UK far outrank Mexico, Brazil and Peru, for example. This trend suggests that as markets get wealthier, the focus on issues of environmentalism and plastics increases.

• Eco Believers This group highlighted plastic as a major concern. They take some actions to reduce their environmental impacts, such as using reusable cloth shopping bags instead of plastic bags, but less frequently than Eco Actives.

Eco Believers are more likely to be found in Europe than in any other region. They make up almost a fifth of shoppers in Western Europe (19%), compared to just 4% in Latin America.

• Eco Considerers This group does not see plastic as its biggest concern, but takes infrequent actions to reduce their plastic waste.

Eco Considerers are faced with other challenges, such as managing their weekly budget, or negotiating time pressure which makes convenience their priority. They are also more likely than other groups to claim they cannot find environmentally-friendly products.

The group is large in Latin America (22%, which is bigger than Eco Actives and Eco Believers combined) and makes up almost a quarter (23%) of shoppers in Western and Eastern Europe.

• Eco Dismissers Nearly half of the global population (49%) have little to no interest in the environmental challenges faced by the world and are making no steps to improve.

The topic of plastics rarely features among their friends and family, whose overall awareness of environmental issues is low. This peaks at 67% in Asia and is closely followed by Latin America (63%).

It could be that this group has other considerations and pressures such as lack of time, funds and energy to engage with environmental concern. Many actions that can currently be taken are inconvenient and require time on the part of the consumer, which might be in short supply.

Despite almost half of the population being Eco Dismissers, concludes the report, this isn’t a reason to abandon the environmental cause. “Opportunities lie with those who are most engaged.”

Are young people the true eco-warriors?

Not necessarily. In the media, it is younger people who are often painted as the most zealous environmentalists. For example, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who began the international school strike for climate movement.

But the reality is that the Eco Actives Kantar found in the survey are more likely to be older. This could be due to younger consumers leading more ‘on-the-go’ lifestyles, where convenience is prioritised above reducing plastic waste, whereas older consumers have more time to plan and prepare their alternatives.

Supply chain changes essential

With plastic waste coming into sharp focus, several governments around the world have launched initiatives to reduce its impact, introducing severe penalties for manufacturers that do not abide by new regulations.

The reality is that manufacturers need to be agile enough to respond to new directives as they are brought in and, if they don’t comply, they will soon be unable to sell in many countries. It is now a case of ‘when’ they make changes to their supply chain, not ‘if’.

Plastics in Europe

EU countries have agreed to conform to the Plastics Strategy set out by the European Commission, dictating that all plastic waste will be recyclable by 2030.

Part of this is the Single-Use Plastics Directive, which bans single-use products made of plastic for which alternatives exist – cotton bud sticks, cutlery and straws, for example – and includes measures to reduce the use of plastic food and beverage containers.

It follows the 2015 Plastic Bags Directive, which introduced charges for the use of plastic bags, and was successful in changing shopper behaviour across the continent.

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