The war on plastic – a passing fad or shift in CSR?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now a staple of any marketing strategy. Once the preserve of only the biggest international brands, now SMEs and start-ups are required to have a CSR strategy in place if they are going to compete in the marketplace. The shift represents a general trend in the attitude of consumers, who are particularly keen to associate with purpose-led brands that have strong CSR credentials.

The renewed war on plastic

Although CSR is far from new, in the past week the term has taken centre stage in a highly public debate about plastic. The discussion first began following the EU’s announcement (reported by The Guardian) that it is ‘waging war against plastic waste as part of an urgent plan to clean up Europe’s act and ensure that every piece of packaging on the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030.’ The move is particularly targeted against ‘throw-away items such as drinking straws, “lively coloured” bottles that do not degrade, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, cutlery and takeaway packaging’ which are particularly big contributors to the some 25m tonnes of plastic waste generated by Europeans every year.

While all this may be good news for the environment, it spells impending disaster for many brands whose staple product offering is heavily reliant on plastic. This is particularly relevant for FMCG brands which sell single-use products such as bottled drinks, toiletries and pre-packed food. 

The Coca Cola and Evian Response

In response to the EU’s announcement, several big name brands have been quick to issue press releases about how they intend to fall in line with the new requirements. 

Marketing Week reported that Coca Cola is ‘promising that the equivalent of 100% of its packaging will be collected and recycled by 2030.’ As part of their sustainability strategy ‘World Without Waste’, Coca Cola has recognised the enormous role played by soft drinks companies in the global waste problem, with president and chief executive James Quincey telling The Drum ‘companies like ours must be leaders. Consumers around the world care about our planet, and they want and expect companies to take action.

Evian has also issued a call to arms, with Marketing Week reporting that the brand has given itself the target of ‘adopting a 100% circular approach to plastic use by 2025 – meaning it will look to keep plastic in the economy and out of nature through recycling.’ Evian plans to implement this using a comprehensive strategy, namely ‘through partnerships to redesign its packaging, by accelerating recycling initiatives and by educating consumers.’

What does this mean for CSR?

Reuters has noted that Coca Cola and Evian are only the latest in a string of brands to wage war on plastic, with Iceland, Costa and McDonald‘s all making similar announcements throughout January. So what does this mean for CSR? Should we hail the move as a watershed moment in brand awareness and ethical marketing, or simply another PR stunt by brands jumping on the bandwagon of environmental causes?

Forbes contributor Susan McPherson noted that many CSR moves witnessed in 2017 were essentially reactive, arguing that ‘much of the CEO and corporate activism we witnessed […] came in response to presidential announcements [in the US context]. Relating this to the more recent debate around plastic, it is clear that while the announcements are welcome they still represent a reactive response to the EU’s announcement. The observant reader will also note that Coca Cola in particular has promised ‘the equivalent of 100% of its packaging will be collected and recycled by 2030,’ but not that it will move away from plastic use all together. McPherson predicts that 2018 will see ‘companies designating social or policy areas where they can make the most impact and devoting more resources toward proactive initiatives,’ but we are not there just yet.

For Campaign Live’s Tim Ashton, ‘our real task […] is to find the brilliantly simple ways of rallying the public behind the problem.’ He argues that ‘there are subtler routes than using bans and hectoring messages for brands, and their agencies, to change culture and people’s behaviour,’ and that brands must set about changing culture in fundamental ways as opposed to just tinkering at the edges. He believes that agencies in particular ‘must use our creativity and consumer insight skills to provide brands with the tools to help achieve the goals the government have rightly set for them.’

As a long term strategy, the announcements by the likes of Coca Cola and Evian are a welcome step in the right direction, not only for the environment but for CSR strategies as a whole. Yet as Ashton and McPherson point out, if even greater progress is to be made, brands need to adopt a proactive approach to tackling these issues at a cultural level, rather than simply reacting when governments and supra-national institutions such as the EU dictate that they must. It is then that a fundamental shift in CSR will take place, as opposed to the piecemeal developments seen thus far.

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