Analysis: Can retailers achieve a plastic-free future?

28th March 2018

Can retailers save the planet by ditching plastic asks Clare Dowdy

It’s taken a dead whale calf to alert shoppers to the evils of excessive plastic packaging. That, coupled with China’s recent ban on imports of ‘foreign garbage,’ has spurred many retailers to rush to be seen to be tackling the issue. Yet another incentive comes from the Government, as it looks at ways of taxing single-use plastic.

The number of chains announcing their intentions to deal with the plastic scourge keeps growing. Simon Ellin, CEO of The Recycling Association, is upbeat: “You can’t continue to pass the buck down the system through bad design and over-production. Retailers and producers have been caught out, and I do smell change.”

A few chains are already taking steps. For example, Albert Heijn has removed plastic from seasonal, locally sourced vegetables and only packages imported items.

Of the UK’s big retailers, Iceland appears to be leading the charge, with head of sustainable packaging Richard Parker promising to remove plastic packaging from its own-label products by 2023. Meanwhile Aldi UK plans to ensure that all packaging on its own-label products will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2022.

But retailers’ language – highly packaged with intentions, pledges, goals, promises, targets, aims and commitments – might not fill shoppers with confidence. This hedging could have something to do with the knotty problem of executing such enormous changes.

“The push for less packaging has huge operational implications behind the scenes and this could have a knock-on effect for store environments,” says Sian Novakovic, experience strategy director at Household. The design firm is discussing the implications of reducing plastic and packaging with its supermarket clients.

The inconvenience caused to customers via package removal could impact all retail sectors, as customers frequently use branding and packaging to shortcut purchase decisions,” Novakovic adds.

Meanwhile luxury brands – often denoted by their extravagant packaging as exemplified in the Duty Free aisles of airports – see packaging as a status symbol.

Changes to food packaging could impact massively on store layout and customer behaviour, Novakovic believes. “There is a growing trend towards shopping little and often with 65% of Britons visiting a supermarket regularly or occasionally more than once a day (according to Waitrose, 2017). Encouraging  shoppers to bring their own reusable containers would be a big culture shift. It could reduce people’s ability to take impulse-shopping trips, requiring customers to offset their desire for convenience with the need to plan ahead. As a result, shopping habits could shift from multiple visits throughout the week to larger, bulk shops. However, for those living in cities or reliant on public transport this could pose significant logistical issues.”

Planet Organic is one of the few retailers to have made tangible changes, through the introduction of bulk sales. Three years ago, Unpackaged, the first bespoke, automated, self-service refill concession, opened at its Muswell Hill outlet.

The brainchild of Catherine Conway, Unpackaged is soon to move into its fourth Planet Organic, giving Conway insight into the impact of such a system on supermarket interiors and customers. “Bulk selling takes up more space. The customer flow is very different because they have to stop and actively do something.” This could be a benefit to retailers because: “They’re all interested in retail theatre,” she adds, which means “Staff have to be more engaged and well-trained, they must understand the weighing systems and have to answer questions,” because no packaging means no back-of-pack information. “This all has an impact on staff time.”

And logistically, “back of house is different, how you receive products and merchandise, must undo bulk products and put in dispenser.” She believes there’s a need to redesign the supply chain to support front of house.

Conway is now launching Unpackaged At, an off-the-shelf unit of gravity bins and scoop bins, and specially-designed scales, that will go into independents such as farm shops and delis. “Lots of people think they can sell bulk but there’s a skill to making it attractive, keeping it full and keeping staff motivated.” It will debut at Welbeck Farm Shop in Nottinghamshire next month (April 2018).

As the trend for reduced packaging gains pace, could there come a time when it becomes positively uncool for shoppers to double as walking billboards for package-heavy brands?

An estimated 2.5bn disposable cups are used each year, according to research by Cardiff University for coffee roaster Bewley’s. Surely soon, no brand will want its logo on Public Enemy Number One, the disposable coffee cup?

It’s bad enough when customers are buying take-away drinks. But surely the next step will be for ubiquitous chains such as Pret A Manger to ditch disposables for their in-store diners, in favour of old-fashioned crockery. Now that would be progress, and would improve the interiors’ aesthetic no end.