Plastic-free July: unravelling the hard truth behind 12 years of eco claims

This month marks the 12th Plastic Free July initiative; a phenomenal platform from the Plastic Free Foundation that’s put single-use plastic well and truly in the spotlight.

Tim Keaveny, founder of B-Corp certified Eco brand HomeThings
Tim Keaveny, founder of B-Corp certified eco brand Homethings

It’s game-changing campaigning like this that has become part of the consumer consciousness and has ultimately led to sustainability becoming more of a mainstream consumer issue.

But in reality, have we really seen 12 years of progress in the supermarket aisles? Or has Plastic Free July become just another ‘calendar hook’  – a flag-waving exercise for brands and corporations to dip their toe into once a year?

As founder and CEO of Homethings, a B-corp brand creating next-gen eco home care products, Tim Keaveney isn’t so sure…

According to recent Kantar data, ‘eco active’ consumers are worth around £29bn per annum to the UK grocery market. It’s no wonder then, that powerhouse FMCG brands are making increasingly bold eco claims front and centre on pack.

In our space, that ranges from a somewhat dubious claim by Finish that by using its (plastic) dishwasher pods consumers can save 1,000 litres of water – to the more recent claim from fellow challenger Ocean Saver that its laundry pods can – and I quote – “Save the Oceans”.

The tip of the plastic iceberg

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Without clear standardised definitions sustainability is becoming the Wild West of consumer claims.

Take the claim ‘natural’. It’s widely used in beauty, cosmetics and household products. But what does it actually mean? Read the ingredients list on the back of pack for these products and it certainly doesn’t read like things you’d pick from your allotment.

Without regulation and agreed definitions of these eco-claims we risk seriously undermining consumer confidence in ‘eco’, and with it any prospect of the radical changes in purchasing habits that we so desperately need.

We are already seeing this come through in the data, with the same Kantar report estimating that a depressingly high 53% of those very same eco active consumers agree with the statement: ‘All companies only care about profits and eco claims are just another marketing tool’.

It’s no wonder consumers feel this way when established eco brands like Ecover market themselves as being the gold standard while continuing to sell customers single-use plastic wrapped dishwasher tabs.

So, what do we do about it?

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Consistency, regulation and responsibility

Firstly, we need regulation to establish agreed criteria and definitions of widely used eco claims such as ‘natural’, ‘plastic-free’, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘eco-friendly’, giving brands clear guidance on the evidence needed to substantiate the use of such claims.

Secondly, there must be consistency from the authorities in scrutinising these claims. We recently did our first TV advert and, quite rightly, went through a painstaking claims verification process to get the ad approved by Clearcast. But why is it that brands need to be so careful and evidence-based when advertising on TV but can say whatever they please on the front of pack?

Thirdly, retailers have a responsibility to ask hard questions. If there are strong eco claims on pack, retailers should be satisfying themselves that the brand can substantiate the claim if needed.

Of course, brands themselves clearly have the lion’s share of the responsibility here.

Recent research from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and Kantar suggests 64% of consumers put the onus on businesses to solve climate and environmental issues. If unsubstantiated sustainability claims continue to muddy the water between genuine eco innovations and pure marketing, this will seriously undermine brands who are actually innovating to provide the sustainable solutions consumers are looking for.

Rapid action is needed now to establish trust and confidence for shoppers when it comes to eco-claims, so I welcome the greater focus from the Advertising Standards Authority and the Competition and Marketing Authority on this. But I also believe that we need to go further and faster, or risk continued meandering apathy on what is one of the biggest issues of our time.

MarketingMaterials and packagingOpinionRetail

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