How important is sustainability in marketing?

If you wanted to get a feel for how important sustainability is to brands – or rather how important it is to be seen to be environmentally conscious – you just need to look at Walkers Crisps.

The brand leader recently found itself under some intense consumer pressure to ditch plastic packaging in favour of a more sustainable alternative, with no less than 300,000 people signing a petition calling for Walkers to take decisive and immediate action.

Then came further pressure, from campaign group 38 Degrees, which highlighted how many crisp manufacturers – not just Walkers – have “failed to do enough” to move to plastic-free or biodegradable packaging; with most only prepared to pledge to go 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025.

As the research points out, however, Walkers alone makes 11 million crisp packets a day, which means billions of non-recyclable crisp packets will be produced by 2025.

It took Walkers little more than a month to respond to the pressure with a significant sustainability initiative, announcing the launch of the UK’s first nationwide recycling scheme for crisp packets, up and running from December 2018.

Geraint Ashcroft, who started the petition, called it “wonderful news” and deemed it to be a “huge step forward” for Walkers.

Nice one, Walkers, then. Right?


Protecting the brand

We’ll never know if Walkers had the recycling scheme in mind before the petition drew public attention, but it certainly feels like a reactive move. All the same, its swift action was extremely timely and probably saved Walkers from any serious damage to the brand.

You could argue that a big brand like Walkers would have survived the sustainability backlash with its market share intact, regardless of any subsequent PR efforts. But, with consumers placing an increasing importance on sustainability in their purchasing decisions, it wasn’t a risk Walkers was prepared to take.

Research carried out by ThoughtWorks in 2018 suggests that consumers now put environmental considerations around plastic waste above the price of goods when shopping. ThoughtWorks found that 62% of the 2,000 people surveyed were concerned with the need to reduce plastic packaging and use materials which were recyclable, while 57% said price would be a main driver for their purchases in the next 10 years.

With consumers now wielding all the power, due to ever-increasing choice in the market, brands can’t afford to ignore what they’re telling them – and right now it’s clear they want to buy only from brands who are doing their bit for the environment.

Sustainability marketing must be genuine

It’s crunch-time for Walkers’ recycling initiative, particularly if the scheme fails to get going. If it comes to light that the company hasn’t followed through on its promise, it can expect another backlash – just ask Shell.

Over the last few years, Shell has made attempts to right its wrongs with various sustainability marketing campaigns, including this year’s #MakeTheFuture initiative. However, activists aren’t having any of it.

Earlier in the year, members of subversive advertising group Brandalism installed a series of guerrilla outdoor ads in London, Leeds, Oxford and Bristol, to “highlight the hypocrisy of Shell’s recent PR campaigns”.

“Each year, Shell spends millions trying to convince us that it’s a progressive, ethical company. But we’re not buying it,” Janette Watkins told the Campaign website.

Ultimately, if brands aren’t genuine with their sustainability marketing – backing it up with actions – consumers can quickly become angry and, if not quite going as far as speaking their minds about it, do the thing that damages businesses the most and speak with their wallets.

What importance does your brand place on sustainability marketing? If you think you could be doing more, speak with Linney about how we can help you make it happen.