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Straws: don’t take us for suckers

The first press release came in on March 26th. In it, Sainsbury’s announced the removal of 18.5m plastic straws from its own brand range of lunchbox juice cartons. “Widely recyclable” paper straws will be used instead. It is a “huge achievement” said Claire Hughes, director of product and innovation at Sainsbury’s.

Yesterday, March 31st, another one landed. This time it was from Aldi UK. “Removing plastic straws from own-brand drinks cartons is another step in our journey to reducing plastic packaging across our products,” said Richard Gorman, the discounter’s plastics and packaging director.

Neither release mentioned that new regulations are forcing them to remove these single-use plastic straws. The Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 mean that, come July 3rd drinks manufacturers will not be permitted to sell products with single-use plastic straws attached to the packaging.

Aldi and Sainsbury’s are ahead of the game, sure, but is dressing up regulatory alignment as corporate responsibility greenwashing? That’s unclear.

Neither supermarket has broken the law (though all food brands should be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority is taking a very close look at some of these tactics). Rather they have spun a story about their legal obligations into one that paints them as environmentally responsible businesses. It is, as Jheni Osman, from BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth, noted in a piece for Client Earth recently a “classic greenwashing tactic”.

Companies have been engaging in this approach for years: a decade ago Asda ran an advertising campaign showing staff recycling cardboard, but there was no mention of its legal requirements to do so. If it had, so the thinking goes, the marketing may have been less effective.

But is this really the case? Research on this topic published in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication last year tested the effects of various degrees of greenwashing on consumers – from those that boldly lied to those that told the truth. The experts also compared varying degrees of what they called “motive greenwashing” – an organisation acting on its own initiative versus taking credit for simply following the law.

“Only a truly green positioning can be beneficial,” the authors concluded. “Also, organisations’ reputation will not benefit from their environmentally friendly behaviors when they are merely taking credit for complying with legal obligations.”

Food brands – and their marketing teams – should take note.