Unpicking the plastic PR strategies of food brands

Food companies have made myriad plastic-related pledges in the past couple of years, but are they any good? Researchers at the University of Surrey decided to find out. By David Burrows.

WHAT DID THE RESEARCHERS DO? Basically, they picked through the websites, press releases and policies of 12 “trailblazing” companies (those that have committed to reduce single-use plastic) that cover a “variety of different relationships to plastic food packaging and to the consumer”. These were Carlsberg Group, Nestlé, Aldi, Marks and Spencer, Iceland, Quorn, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Müller, Princes, Kraft Heinz and Waitrose. The analysis covered the period from January 2018 to September 2019.

THAT’S SOME JOB. Indeed it is (especially when you have to read documents with quotes like this one from Bernardo Hees, CEO at Kraft Heinz: “Even though we don’t yet have all the answers, we owe it to current and future generations who call this planet ‘home’ to find better packaging solutions and actively progress efforts to improve recycling rates.” Or indeed this one, from Kevin Brennan, CEO at Quorn: “Moving so quickly to remove black plastic is a significant challenge, but one that, as a sustainable company, we view as being of the utmost importance. We view this as the right thing to do, despite the six-figure cost.”) However, what the researchers didn’t try to do is gauge whether the companies are living up to their pledges; they merely wanted to assess how these companies have responded to the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD). This produced some great insight into how the brands have been communicating their efforts.

TELL ME THE TOP LINE. OK, so they found there was some subtle spinning going on. Here’s how the authors put it: “If the discursive strategies used in the policies, statements and press releases analysed shared one commonality, it was their use of the new-found public concern for marine plastics waste pollution to reframe their organisation as a part of the solution rather than part of the system that created the problem in the first place.” In other words, they don’t mention all the plastic pollution to date, or the vast tonnages of unrecyclable stuff they’ve plonked onto the market so far. And if they do, they blame the rest of the value chain (or as the academics put it: they “refracted a proportion of culpability”).

THAT’S CUNNING. It is. And there’s more. Some of their press statements are exemplars in the dark art of scientific and statistical ambiguity. This was served up by the authors as an example: “… that new Carlsberg packaging ‘is set to reduce plastic waste globally by more than 1,200 tonnes a year – the equivalent to 60 million plastic bags’ sounds wonderful but lacks any contextualising information.” There are plenty of other examples of this.

IT’S GREENWASHING, THEN? If you say so. Others would call it clever communications. Indeed, supermarkets have also been focusing on just how incredibly convenient they’re making everything now (again, no mention of the past), with new collection points for hard-to-recycle stuff. It’s the bigger brands that tend to be evolving into waste contractors, given their reach. What’s also intriguing is how, with all this “high-flown rhetoric” whizzing around, they haven’t ended up tying themselves in knots. As the report states: “They had to present themselves as both being driven to take drastic action by their customers’ values and by their own core beliefs, both listening to their customers and educating them, both knowing what was best for the consumer and not having all the answers, of leading the way and yet being part of a much larger network of collective responsibility.”

THAT SOUNDS TERRIBLY TIRING. That’s what happens when you are tight-roping along a central contradiction: that the company is “both implicitly part of the problem and yet explicitly part of its solution”. Most were found to be describing their responsibilities at three main levels: (1) focusing on internal process improvements in the reduction of their own impacts; (2) stressing the importance of strategic change done through alliances and collaborations; and (3) defining themselves as environmental leaders. The approaches also tend to be “holistic”, according to the researchers, with the brands assessed showing a “greater commitment towards the circular economy”. For example, “almost every company surveyed advertised either short-term, long-term, or both short- and long-term targets to minimise their single-use plastic use, and to shift towards alternatives that are or are perceived to be more sustainable. This suggests that companies are integrating single-use plastic reduction as part of a broader and longer-term mission towards sustainability.”

THAT SOUNDS MORE POSITIVE. It’s hard to say. Many companies are firing shots into the dark – for example, by switching materials or stripping off packaging – but the effect of all this isn’t clear, said Noreen O’Meara, from the University of Surrey’s School of Law. We have no idea of how all this will come together, and what it means for reducing single-use packaging (the researchers found that none of these companies’ sustainability pledges outlines exactly how their strategies are going to be measured).

SO, WE NEED REGULATION, THEN? It’s interesting you should mention that, because as well as conveniently ignoring their problematic plastic past, these 12 firms also neglect to mention that their efforts aren’t actually the proactive policies of businesses with purpose – they are really a reaction to regulation. This was a “striking” (but not surprising) oversight. The report states that “when the companies surveyed provided any rationale at all for their new-found commitments to reducing plastic pollution, they tended not to mention the need to comply with new legislation, rather attributing them to either their organisation’s own deep-seated values, or framing their initiatives as being in response to listening to their customers and finding that they are concerned about marine plastic pollution”. Whether the SUPD will be effective is a different question altogether.

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