It has been very encouraging to see the UK government put such a focus on environmental protection this week. As part of a new 25-year Environment Plan, Theresa May has pledged to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the year 2042.
Measures include extending the 5p charge for plastic bags that currently applies to supermarkets and large retailers to small shops too. Previously retail employers of 250 people or less had been able to give away plastic bags for free, but now they must introduce the same charge.
Other initiatives include a plan to urge supermarkets to introduce ‘plastic-free aisles’ where all food is sold loose without the use of unnecessary plastic packaging. Above all, it was encouraging to hear the government talk about tackling “the throwaway culture” associated with plastic packaging, which has caused so much pollution both on land and at sea.
I found it particularly interesting to hear about the enormous success of the 5p bag charge to date. Apparently there has been a 90% decline in plastic bag use since the charge was introduced in October 2015, with nine billion fewer plastic bags in circulation.
This is an astonishing result, and one that highlights how quickly consumers can adapt when they are asked to make changes to the way they shop. The introduction of a simple levy has changed the psychology of shopping, encouraging people to save bags and re-use them time and again. Others have invested in sturdy tote bags or ‘bags for life’ that they take with them every time they go to the supermarket.
But it’s not just the practicalities that are interesting. The bag charge has also tapped into the rising demand among consumers – particularly millennials – for brands to act in a more environmentally responsible way.
Today the news and social media is full of stories that reveal how quickly the world’s environmental problems are escalating, from climate change to plastic pollution. A recent episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, which showed how pervasive and damaging the plastic issue has become, provoked a horrified reaction from the viewing public. As consumers, we are more aware than ever of how our consumption habits are impacting the environment, and the calls for change are growing louder all the time.
“Consumers can adapt quickly when they are asked to make changes to the way they shop”
With this in mind, brands have a chance to be real leaders and help to change the world for the better. It is one thing for the government to bring in new rules, taxes and charges, but quite another for brands to set the agenda themselves. Not only does this tend to generate a positive reaction from consumers – it also shows that businesses are relevant, innovative and in-tune with a changing world.
Just look at Pret A Manger, for example, which announced at the beginning of the year that it will provide a 50p discount on all hot drinks when customers supply their own reusable cups. The sandwich chain has been offering 25p discounts to people using reusable cups since last year – alongside Costa and Starbucks – but CEO Clive Schlee said he hoped that doubling the discount would “help change habits”.
This is an admirable ambition, demonstrating that Pret isn’t just paying lip-service to its environmental responsibilities. Rather, it genuinely cares about this issue and is taking bold action to make a difference.
It is telling that MPs have already called for a 25p ‘latte levy’ as a charge on disposable cups. Instead of waiting for such a levy to come into force, though, Pret has taken its own action to incentivise positive change through discounting, rather than by introducing additional charges.
“It is one thing for the government to bring in new rules, taxes and charges, but quite another for brands to set the agenda themselves”
Brands know their actions are under scrutiny from consumers every minute of every day. It is the same reason that people will post images on social media of products they feel have been wrapped in excessive, unnecessary plastic packaging. In the fashion world, meanwhile, I looked recently at how denim brands are continuing to ensure their own relevance by making recycling and environmental protection a core part of the production process. Everywhere there is opportunity for innovation that can make a genuine difference to the world.
The government’s environment strategy this week is hugely welcome, but it shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for the proactive measures that many brands are already taking. The world is changing at such a rapid rate that brands need to ensure they are taking the lead themselves on issues as important as the environment.