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Beyond paper versus plastic

shutterstock_1250226013e-360x240Have you ever asked yourself, “How much better is a paper shopping bag versus a plastic one?” or, “Which would be better for the environment?”

How do consumers evaluate sustainability in a world full of disposable conveniences? We know consumers want to live more sustainable and mindful lives. In fact, 81% of consumers feel strongly that retailers and manufacturers should help improve the environment by implementing programs to this effect. So it makes sense that consumers are drawn to corporate programs that make them feel better about lightening that load.

Keep in mind, consumers are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to discern between true commitment to sustainability and action taken just for show. And they’re not afraid to call out that authenticity—or lack of—on social media, in conversations with friends, or in any other channel. This has made some retailers and manufacturers hesitant, afraid of consumer backlash for well-intentioned efforts. Others are still sustainability skeptics; however, there is a wealth of evidence that says sustainability can boost the bottom line. In fact, when sustainability initiatives are integrated thoughtfully into the strategic plan, they can do everything from streamline the supply chain to unlock a new level of consumer loyalty.

One of the major challenges we hear companies express is that they know sustainability is important; however, they do not have a strategic plan for incorporating it into their store or brand. The word “sustainability” has increasingly become a catch-all term that can encompass everything from environmental conservation to employee relations, and much more. It can seem daunting to incorporate all of these factors into your overall business strategy, and figure out how it fits into your consumer marketing approach. So, whether you’re well on your way or just starting to incorporate sustainability into your strategy, here are five reasons to double down:

  1. Sustainability encourages a culture of innovation, pushing you to embrace new methods, technologies and ideas.
  2. Sustainability is a way to build authenticity, creating more transparency in your supply chain.
  3. Sustainability is a consumer-centric strategy. It requires you to understand the concerns your customers have, and how your store or brand can be a solution to help make their lives better.
  4. Sustainability drives greater efficiency; for example, many companies set commitments to move towards processes that reduce waste, requiring investment in research and development and sometimes the overhaul of supply chains. That upfront investment can pay off as your business benefits from a more efficient process and enhanced reputation.
  5. The positive effects of sustainability are good for us, and they make us feel good too. That goodwill can cut across your employees, consumers and other stakeholder groups.

To do it right, companies need to invest in truly understanding their consumers and embed sustainability into the foundation of their business. Authenticity comes through the end-to-end integration of sustainability into your processes and complete transparency with consumers. That means pushing beyond feel-good marketing to a fully integrated interdepartmental execution. It requires collaboration across many teams, from sourcing and sustainability, to store managers and marketing leaders. Winning requires sustainability be part of your short-and long-term strategic planning from start to finish.

Investing in sustainability is undoubtedly an individual journey for retailers that can be impacted by industry, geography, product portfolio, community commitments and other factors. Success comes when companies take a tailored approach consisting of multi-stakeholder engagement, cross-functional accountability and transparency at every step along the way. Given that it’s nearly impossible to predict the next consumer-driven sustainability trend, the key is to start taking steps in a sustainable direction and make consumers aware of the steps your company is taking.

Carman Allison is vice-president of consumer insights at Nielsen in Toronto. This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’September/October issue.


Sobeys to remove plastic bags from all stores next year as retailers go green

Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 10.08.06 PMShoppers at Sobeys Inc. grocery stores will soon need to bring their own totes or lug their purchases home in paper bags as the chain moves to phase out plastic bags by February 2020.

Canadians go through hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bags at grocery stores each year, and the chains – most of which charge a nominal fee for plastic bags – are facing pressure from increasingly eco-conscious consumers to do more to eliminate their plastic-centric packaging.

Sobeys said it is making the move to phase out plastic bags as a response to calls from customers and employees to use less plastic. The retailer also committed to launch programs to reduce plastic in other areas of the stores.

“We really felt that the amount of avoidable plastic in grocery stores is shocking,” said Vittoria Varalli, the company’s vice-president of sustainability. The change will eliminate 225 million bags used annually at Sobeys 255 stores.

The company, which is owned by Stellarton, N.S.-based Empire Co. Ltd, will phase out plastic bags and introduce paper bags at its other banners soon after. Sobeys also operates Safeway, Thrifty Foods, IGA, Foodland, Freshco and Farm Boy. It boasts more than 1,500 stores across all its chains.

“The ultimate goal,” said Varalli, is to eliminate plastic bags from the produce aisle as well. It plans to introduce a line of reusable mesh alternatives made from recycled bottles in August.

Food companies have been on a mission to reduce plastic from their operations recently as consumers push for more sustainable practices. Some are taking initiatives to change ahead of the federal government’s announced ban on single-use plastics by 2021, which would force them to find non-plastic alternatives.

Last year, restaurants responded to pressure to eliminate plastic straws after a video showing someone removing a straw stuck up a turtle’s nose went viral.

Starbucks, A&W and other chains made promises to remove the item from their eateries, and some have already done so.

But the trend toward sustainability didn’t stop at straws. Many fast-food giants started experimenting with other green packaging. In June, McDonald’s Canada announced it would test wooden cutlery and other recycling-friendly containers at two restaurants.

“I think they’re trying to respond to popular concern,” said Vito Buonsante, plastics program manager at the advocacy organization Environmental Defence, of grocers’ efforts to reduce plastic waste by targeting plastic bags.

In coastal regions, plastic bags create a major environmental problem, he said, where they persist for a long time and harm wildlife.

Despite the fact that Canadians use about 2.86 billion plastic bags a year, Buonsante sees them as “low-hanging fruit” that people easily can do without.

Grocery stores are slowly starting to get on board with the push to eliminate single-use plastics.

Metro Inc. announced earlier this year it would start allowing consumers to use reusable containers to store fresh products, such as those from the deli and pastry counters, at its Quebec stores.

In May, the company committed to cut its use of single-use plastic bags in half by the end of its 2023 financial year. It also said it wants to reduce the amount of produce bags used by 10 per cent by the end of its 2020 financial year.

Loblaw Companies Ltd., meanwhile, started charging five cents per plastic bag about a decade ago and reduced the number of plastic bags used in its stores by nearly 12 billion, wrote spokesperson Catherine Thomas in an email.

It has donated $10 million to the World Wildlife Fund with some of the proceeds as of the end of 2018. Thomas declined to provide the total amount the company has made by charging for plastic bags.

Meanwhile, customers seeking greener grocery pastures have given rise to niche no-waste markets across Canada.

“Change is kind of happening,” said Buonsante, but – for the most part – these initiatives are limited in effectiveness.

A five-cent bag fee is not a strong deterrent, he said, and companies should create incentives to help shoppers shift their habits.

Governments around the world have started to crack down on single-use plastics to force companies into change.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in June that his government is starting the regulatory work to ban toxic single-use plastics because the garbage infiltrating the world’s waterways is out of hand.

Nothing is going to be banned overnight, with the process to implement a federal ban or limitations on a product under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act usually taking two to four years. The goal is to make decisions on everything on the list by 2021.

Trudeau said Canada’s plan will “closely mirror” that of Europe. In March, the European Parliament agreed that by 2021 the European Union will ban almost a dozen single-use products including plastic plates, cutlery, cups, straws, plastic sticks in cotton swabs, balloon sticks and stir sticks, and Styrofoam cups and take-out food containers. Oxo-degradeable plastics including plastic grocery bags, which break down into tiny pieces with exposure to air but never fully disappear, are also to be banned.