The pollution of our oceans has long been an environmental issue. However, its recent acceleration up the news agenda is focussing corporate comms teams to become drivers of actions that speak louder than words
These are unprecedented times in the FMCG and retail sector. Supermarket chain Iceland has announced plans to “eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its own-label products by the end of 2023”. Evian says it will use 100% recycled plastic by 2025. Lofty targets, but not unsurprising.
In the last year, the issue of plastic waste and the effect on the environment has dramatically risen to the top of the news agenda. And this trend is not set to slow down, research from Hitwise shows year on year searches for “plastic free” online have increased by 1,325 per cent.
This isn’t surprising when you consider that one of the most watched television programmes of last year was David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II – the final episode of which was dedicated to the impact of plastic waste in our seas and oceans – you can see how prevalent the issue now is. Just last week it was awarded the National Television Awards’ Impact Award for the awareness it raised of the deadly plastic pollution which is killing marine life and upsetting ecosystems in the world’s oceans
The first stage on the road to recovery is to acknowledge the problem. With many brands historically treading carefully around topics such as the environment, preferring a reactive only stance, the tide has now surely turned.
With a major, unavoidable issue, often the best course of action can be to hold ones hands up and be transparent about it. And it’s true that there is a movement among brands to be more transparent, both from comms and operational perspectives. Look at AstraZeneca, for example. It is striving for transparency, both figuratively and physically. It made a big play in 2017 about its drive for corporate transparency and is also continually keen to stress how “open” its new facility in Cambridge is.
Transparency is naturally to be commended, but the sheer speed in which comms and culture have to keep up means that we are already at the stage where taking a transparent PR approach is merely accepted as standard, not rewarded. What media and their audience now crave is not the acknowledgement of an issue, but the plan of action to deal with it.
This is why the announcements by Iceland and Evian should be applauded. They haven’t said they will be putting a plan into place, they have committed to act with tangible results. Rather than an ethereal statement saying how seriously they take the plastics issue and will be doing all they can to address it, they’ve nailed their colours to the mast. They will either succeed or they will fail, and they will be judged either way. And in communicating the plans so clearly, they have given a real shot in the arm to the comms practices of the FMCG and retail sectors. By stealing a march on competitors, they have placed a major onus on them to communicate what they are doing to tackle the plastic crisis. They are showing what it is to be a market leader, not through product sales but by being a good corporate citizen.
Think of all the FMCG manufacturers that currently rely on plastic for their packaging. The best comms are coming from those taking leadership positions. Take Coca-Cola European Enterprises for example. It released its GB Sustainable Packaging strategy in July, as well as This Is Forward, its sustainability action plan, which came into play in November 2017. And this month it pledged to recycle a used bottle or can for every one the company sells by 2030. There is undoubtedly a great deal of work to do for them, but they have put clear courses of action into play.
And this concept of “acknowledgement to action” is becoming more evident in other areas of hot news. Take the gender pay gap debate as an example. At the beginning of the year, 500 brands released their figures on the gender pay gap. While the transparency was welcomed, it still wasn’t enough. People wanted to know what these organisations were doing about it, what benchmarks were being set and what success looked like. The world wants tangible actions, simply expressed.
It is an indicative shift in corporate communications that brands need to adapt sooner rather than later. It’s not that brands won’t have been working furiously to tackle the plastics crisis – it will have been on the agenda for years. But, the shift in the news agenda means that those that can act now and clearly articulate their plans will be the ones to succeed. They will not only create a positive impact from an environmental standpoint, but their candidness and active approach will enhance their corporate reputation.