Eliminating plastic: Retailers, it’s time to be brave

9 May 2019

Emma Burlow, Head of Circular Economy, tells us how she accepts that there is (or was) a default consumer position towards convenience, but notes that if you now ask today’s consumer what they want, they appear to be saying, at great volume, “less plastic” and are challenging retailers more than ever on over-packaging.

Ask a retailer and they’ll have you believe that this sorry plastic mess we’ve found ourselves in has all been driven by consumers and their demand for cost and convenience. If only they hadn’t insisted on black plastic food trays that go in the freezer, microwave and oven all at once. If only they didn’t demand fruit with zero blemishes and a curry kit in five different pouches.

Today, I heard a retailer proclaim that consumers don’t really want to decant food (from a foil tray) to put it in the microwave. Hence the need for the clever black trays. During another discussion, a facilities management supplier said, “People don’t want to take a plate and cup to eat at their desk; they just won’t, they insist on takeaway options.”

Who are these people I’m thinking? Did I miss the viral video of the riot at the work canteen? Or the petition to government on the need for more ways to make a curry?

Or are they the ONE person who mentioned this as an issue in a focus group, that then became the reason why action wasn’t taken?

I do accept that there is (or was) a default consumer position towards convenience, but if you ask today’s consumer what they want, they appear to be saying, at great volume, “less plastic.” They are challenging retailers more than ever on over-packaging, removing packaging at the tills and taking to social media in their hoards to tell their favourite brands they’re not happy.

And yet, the retail argument of ‘but the consumer demands x, y, z’ just runs and runs. A more cynical person may conclude that the fear of losing sales and market share is so great that they are simply paralysed into inaction, leaning on the consumer acceptance brake.

I constantly hear: “we need to tread carefully,” “bring people on board,” “listen to views,” “there is no quick fix.”

Ironically, climate change represents the biggest potential challenge our generation has ever known. Getting rid of plastic spoons does not. 

I accept that consumers don’t always appreciate what’s good for them and/or the planet.  And that they often fall foul of marketing messages; growth in consumerism in the western world is testament to both statements. But logic tells me that if we can be duped into consumerism, we can also be un-duped from it, or duped into something altogether more sustainable, like decanting food into reusable containers or using a china plate at our desks.

So, I implore you retailers. Don’t fall into the trap of listening to a minority voice or neglecting to challenge difficult choices.  When the majority voice is saying “Do it, do it, do it – what’s taking you so bloody long?”, challenge that ‘people don’t like change’ voice and keep moving forward.

Climate, and the fate of our oceans, favours the brave.

Emma Burlow, Head of Circular Economy

Emma is one of the UK’s leading specialists on circular economy and resource efficiency in businesses and has more than 20 years’ experience in the sector. She has an excellent… Read more


By Emma Burlow
Head of Circular Economy

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