It’s time to stop placing the onus on consumers and for brands to start leading the way in tackling sustainability in the US

31 May, 2019 Share socially

Pioneering recycling company TerraCycle shook up the consumer packaging industry when it launched its innovative ‘circular shopping’ scheme LOOP at the World Economic Forum in January. It’s since been rolling out in different markets, the latest being the US, whose poor recycling track record make it a prime target for the Loop initiative. But it’s led many commentators to ask if US consumers are ready for such forward-thinking recycling innovation, and importantly, if they even care?

Currently the US only recycles 9% of its plastic, compared to 39% plastic recycling rate across the EU and 22% in China. The rest is either burned or sent to landfill. This is quite shocking. But what’s worse is that even if American consumers wanted to recycle more, they simply can’t because the sheer scale of the country and the lack of infrastructure often makes it impossible. There also isn’t enough governmental pressure towards addressing this within corporations or in communities, with environmental messages being, at best, ambiguous under Trump.

This is in contrast to Europe where there is a whole ecosystem around sustainability that exists to change people’s behaviour. It starts with government, which manifests into laws, corporate changes, infrastructural developments that make it possible and convenient, which turn into new social and cultural norms around recycling and sustainability. An ecosystem like this means to recycle becomes the default mode. In the US at the moment, it’s easier to opt-out than opt-in because the ecosystem is not there yet. This represents a huge opportunity for brands to take a lead, and they really should. The question is, of course, how?

When you’re talking about recycling, you’re talking about behaviour change. But getting people to change behaviour is difficult. To really make a difference, what brands need to do is take the responsibility out of consumers’ hands and make behavioural changes a by-product of the products and services that they offer.

To really make a difference, what brands need to do is take the responsibility out of consumers’ hands and make behavioural changes a by-product of the products and services that they offer.
Jon Tipple

Terracyle’s LOOP does this by making it aspirational to choose the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream that arrives in a cool metal tin or the toothpaste that comes in novel tablet-form over traditional formats, while the delivery system brings consumers a new level of convenience. New behaviours around sustainability are therefore the by-product of consuming new product formats that offer an aspirational choice and a real boost in convenience. The fact that they’re working with Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Nestle mean that they’re thinking of scale, too, and about the viability of actually providing consumers with a whole new way to shop that also happens to be sustainable. Initiatives like this change and enrich the recycling ecosystem, making it easier to opt-in to sustainable behaviours than to opt-out.

In uncertain and fluctuating times, the brands that do what they say are the ones that succeed and grow. Brands that don’t do what they say, suffer. Most companies have sustainability woven into their brand purpose and messaging, but I’d question if they are doing enough to deliver on that at a consumer level. It’s time to stop placing the onus on the consumer to change their behaviour and for brands to truly start providing consumers with experiences based on their own sustainable principles. In the case of the US, it’s too big a market to ignore. And with sustainability being an increasing priority for investors and shareholders, leading the way in sustainability isn’t just about being good. It’s about being commercially savvy and ensuring your brand is fit for the future.

This article originally appeared in The Drum.