This article originally was published in BSR Insight.
If you’ve read our Good Company report, you already know that around 42 percent of Americans want to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products, and 26 percent can name a brand — unaided — that they’ve purchased or not purchased because of the environmental or social record of the manufacturer. You also know that how well you’re taking care of your people is what affects Americans’ favorability towards your brand the most.
But another clear mandate from consumers is right behind that: recycling. When asked, “Please choose the three most important things companies should be doing to positively impact your purchase decision,” “recycle” comes out on top, and “make recyclable products” rounds out the top three answers.
So — why? If you’re reading this, you know that there are much bigger initiatives companies can and should be doing to reduce their environmental impact, so why are Americans fixated on recycling?
- They’re still more worried about plastics in the ocean than climate change. We uncovered that this was the case back in 2019, and it’s held true even through our surveying during the pandemic. For many Americans, plastics in the ocean is the issue we need to tackle, largely because all of us are complicit in it. (That could be my plastic bag around that turtle’s neck!) This is a highly visual, tangible problem that we can all see our part in, and we want it to stop. But for those consumers actively trying to reduce their single-use plastics purchases — a third of the population pre-pandemic, a quarter during the pandemic — they’re forced to buy plastic packaging to get the products they want, and so they put the onus on manufacturers and brands. In other words, “If you’re going to make me buy single-use plastic packaging that I don’t want to buy, then it’s on you to ensure that plastic is made from recycled content and that it’s recyclable.”
- Recycling is a giant get-out-of-guilt free card. Many of us feel a little guilty about all that we buy and throw away. Just think for a second about the word “waste.” It’s never used to connote something positive — “waste not, want not” comes to mind, as does, “That guy at the bar is so wasted” — so none of us wants to be a “waster.” If we didn’t have a recycling bin, we’d be rolling two garbage cans to the curb each week instead of one, and we’d feel really bad about it. So we believe in recycling — even for the 39 percent of Americans who are aware of challenges with the current recycling system, 97 percent haven’t changed their recycling habits. And that belief extends to the brands we identify with and purchase — we expect brands to hold themselves to the same standard we hold ourselves to, and we expect them to recycle their waste versus throwing it in a landfill.
- We’re starting to lose faith. Interestingly, though, in 2019, only 15 percent of Americans said they didn’t feel confident that what they put in the recycling bin actually was recycled. One year later, that number jumped to 23 percent. That puts ever more expectation on brands. If I can’t feel sure that what I put in the blue bin is actually recycled, then I need to know that brands are trying to handle this for me, recycling their own waste and making packaging from recycled content.
There’s a huge opportunity for brands to tell their stories — about how you’re managing waste on your factory floors, but also about how you’re working to use packaging materials that genuinely are recyclable. There’s also a high degree of risk here. Until chemical recycling becomes commonplace, any plastics labeled 3-7 largely aren’t being recycled. So when a brand slaps the chasing arrows encircling a number other than a 1 or a 2 on their packaging, they’re really greenwashing, I’m afraid. And when consumers find out, there will be a backlash. They will feel betrayed and lied to. And that’s not the relationship you want to build between your brand and your buyers.