Looking back at advertising from the 50s raises modern eyebrows. On one hand, your doctor would recommend you cigarettes; on the other, a man in a hat touted plastic items as a cheap, disposable, alternative to glass. Neither seemed particularly sinister at the time. But the ramifications of both are still felt today.
On the former, good ground has been made: your doctor is as likely to prescribe 20 Camel Blue as the bubonic plague. But on plastics, progress has been markedly slower. We’re still struggling to fight our way out of a plastic bag.
The negative ecological effects of single-use plastic – from polluted waterways to the manifold consequences for wildlife – are well-documented, and, though early research was limited in scope, have been for over half a century.
As early as the 50s it was noted that seabirds were ingesting plastic. By 2001, plastic in the sea outweighed plankton by 6:1. Today, plastics consistently make up 60% to 90% of all marine debris studied; marine plastic pollution is found in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined. Scientists have even discovered micro-plastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice.
There is an ungodly amount of plastic in our oceans, and yet, it’s as if though we only just noticed. Four years ago, UK supermarkets were handing out a staggering 7.6bn single-use carrier bags a year – equivalent to 140 per person. But things are changing, and fast. Following legislation a year later, stipulating a mandatory 5p charge on said bags, the number today is 86% lower, at 1.75bn.
We believe that getting people to ‘do’ something for a brand or cause acts as a powerful catalyst to them subsequently ‘feeling’ then ‘thinking’ differently. The changes witnessed in UK single-use plastic consumption are a blinding example of this process.
The plastic bag levy came into effect in England on October 5 2015. This was the forced ‘do’; a barrier raised to easy, intuitive use of plastic. Two years later, the second installment of Blue Planet, presented by national treasure David Attenborough, made crystal clear that our oceans are not. This was the ‘feel’. Blue Planet II pricked the nation’s conscience, and subsequently, people think differently.
It is infrequent for a television show’s message to be so potent as to massively influence public behaviour, but the pace and volume of change since the show aired has been startling, most notably in halls of power.
Just days ago the environment secretary, Michael Gove, called for a third of the world's oceans to be given protected status to save marine life. Last month it was announced ministers are considering doubling the existing 5p bag levy and imposing it on even the smallest stores. Politicians also previously announced an intention to ban the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, alongside plans for a deposit return scheme to increase recycling rates of drinks bottles and cans. A consultation on using the tax system to reduce waste is already considering measures such as introducing a ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups.
In reaction to legislative measures and public awareness, companies are taking practical steps to reduce plastics. The Co-op is replacing plastic bags with compostable carriers. Coca-Cola is encouraging consumers to recycle by inviting them to share bottle 'slam dunks' on social media. A number of fast food chains, including McDonald's, Burger King and Subway, are rethinking their approach to disposable plastics, while Starbucks is banning straws by 2020.
These sorts of initiatives would have been unimaginable in recent memory. A drive to keep products cheap has come at huge environmental cost over many years, but as our industry is reminded daily through surveys ad nauseum, price is not necessarily the key differentiator in consumer purchase decision. We’ve developed a collective conscience; factors from ethical sourcing to brand purpose are more likely to sway the purpose-driven consumer than cheap goods.
As such, consumers are not just willing, but seeking to reduce their plastic consumption. Behavioural change of this sort shouldn’t take 50 years, that’s a given. But the last couple of years are testament to the power of communications. We have witnessed not just a change in behaviour, but a total reversal of opinion within a large chunk of society.
While progress is welcome, the task doesn’t stop with legislation and taxation. We must not develop a false sense of security. Reducing the number of single-use plastics is an ongoing struggle that has only, really, just begun. Government and business action is an encouraging impetus for society. The challenge now is to get the individual to act.
Through our experience running smoking cessation campaigns, we learned that legislation and taxation alone are only the starting point. But changing the minds of those hardest to reach – the more intransigent, with deeply entrenched behaviours – is the biggest roadblock to a plastic-free future. We believe that people identify with brands as a reflection of their own beliefs and values.
If David Attenborough’s dulcet timbre doesn’t convince Consumer A to give up the plastic, there’s a significant chance a brand might. It’s a challenge, but one that brands have a responsibility to take.
Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner at 23red