Expert says public needs information on plastics sustainability


Much of focus in plastics packaging — and rightly so — has been on shrinking the weight and size of the package, and lowering a package’s total environmental footprint. But changing the consumer’s perception that plastics are bad may be the one of the largest challenges companies face in their sustainability journey.

“Most consumers know less than you might think they do,” said Suzanne Shelton, president and CEO of Shelton Group Inc., an advertising agency in Knoxville, Tenn., that focuses on motivating consumers to make sustainable choices and helps companies develop green marketing campaigns.

Indeed, according to Shelton Group surveys, 69 percent of consumers equate green with environmentally friendly, 50 percent define green as something that is recycled or recyclable, and another 40 percent view something green because it is energy-efficient.

“The consumer knows just enough to get them through a cocktail party,” said Shelton, the kickoff speaker at the Sustainable Plastics Packaging 2010 conference in Atlanta in December organized by Plastics News Global Group. “They have a pretty broad definition” of what green means.

“You’d be surprised at the number of consumers that look ashen-face when you tell them that not everything plastics is recyclable,” Shelton said. “They don’t understand how the system works and are giving themselves credit for being greener than they are just because they throw everything in the trash and think it is recyclable.”

Similarly, she said consumers are concerned about potential health hazards from chemicals used to make plastic products and chemicals in health and beauty products, but don’t really know what chemicals are hazardous and what products contain potentially hazardous chemicals.

For example, only 22.5 percent identified polycarbonate plastics as a potential candidate for leaching bisphenol A. Nearly 60 percent weren’t sure what products BPA could leach from, while 28 percent said polyethylene plastics leach BPA, 23 percent said polypropylene and only 9 percent said aluminum cans coated with water-based epoxy.

In a similar fashion, 15 percent identified glycerin as a harmful ingredient in skin care products, 11 percent cited lanolin as a harmful ingredient and 22 percent thought phthalates could be found in skin care products.

“There is confusion and a lack of knowledge,” said Shelton. “It’s up to you to wake them up.”

But she advised companies to “keep it simple and don’t use jargon.”

“Highlight a single issue, do it in a light entertaining way and give them a simple plan of action,” said Shelton. “They’re confused because there is so much information for them to digest, they don’t know what the right choice is.”

“Tailor your sustainability message to a specific category and give the consumer a specific reason to buy the product and believe your claim,” she said. “You need the line of copy that tells the consumer what the benefit is to them.”

For example, with a BPA-free product, she suggested that companies might that the product is “better for your family” or that it has “no harmful chemicals.”

She also cited the use of the word organic as an example of how consumers are confused about labeling and claims on packaging.

“Organic doesn’t buy you [a company] anything because consumers don’t understand it,” said Shelton, pointing to her recent survey results that found that 42 percent of consumers thought a food product could be organic, but not sustainable, and that nearly 50 percent weren’t sure if that was the case. “Consumers don’t understand that the use of the word organics on food is regulated. They think you’re screwing them.”

She also stressed the importance of getting the message right on the packaging because “94 percent of consumers think you are lying to sell them something.”

“It is really important that you get the message right and avoid jargon,” she said “The way ingredient claims and sustainability claims are worded on packages is critical. Chemical names don’t mean anything to consumers and terms like ‘low VOCs’ are lost on them.”

“The consumer is reading the package to make an informed buying decision and too often you are throwing jargon at them,” Shelton said. “You must make the message clear because what the package says is critical to a consumer’s decision to buy.”

The critical message varies by product category, she said. But in general, the most important phrases to consumers are recyclable, followed by biodegradable and then recycled content.

“In non-food products, recycled content and safety seem to be the words that work best,” said Shelton, as 39.8 percent pointed to recycled content, 35.9 percent focused on whether a package says that it contains no potentially toxic chemicals and 30.3 percent want to know if a non-food item is healthy and safe.

“Recycling always matters,” she said. “But packaging as a green attribute only matters in some categories.”

She also said that in the U.S larger is what wins more often when it comes to recycled content.

“The consumer has no idea that packaging’s real job is to protect the product, and the American way is that 100 percent is better than 10 percent,” said Shelton. “So if the tiebreaker in a category is recycled content, larger wins. So you have to be better, faster, sexier and smarter” than your competition.


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