| Eva Sturt | Décembre 2019 |
Packaging has become one of the major environmental and ecological problems of the 21st century and supermarkets have started to take their own actions. Most UK chains have subscribed to the “Plastic act” which inspired different PR think-tank models to reduce plastic wastage and increase up-cycling, thus minimising accumulation of newly produced materials. Others, such as Waitrose in Oxford, have decided this spring to “unpack”. But are they really?
A very media-friendly campaign
Waitrose & Partners at Oxford Botley Road are actually extending elements of their 11-week project (which ended in August) to a further three stores in Cheltenham, Abingdon and Wallingford, due to reportedly overwhelming popularity. Plastic has been a “media friendly” subject over the last year, following an increased public awakening to accumulating and shocking environmental predictions and reports. Outspoken schoolchildren like Greta Thunberg trending on Instagram are becoming invaluable mascots for populist politicians. Teenagers leaving schools in the thousands across Europe to join protests are forcing governments to act. Radical movements in London such as Extinction Rebellion receive high-calibre media support including Dame Emma Thompson.
It is not surprising that the high-end “partner-schemed” supermarket of the UK, who seems to have its finger reliably on the trend-pulse, unravelled the yet most ambitious trial: bring or buy containers to refill anything from rice to wine, dried to frozen fruit. All offered in the well know, comfortable and very alluringly modern-meets-vintage style of Waitrose – which we all love but that unfortunately only so many can afford.
“Why did we stop doing it like this?” Headline of Waitrose Weekend newspaper, 27th June 2019.
The “Good old days” concept has a strong pull-factor and much resonance within the public, as a BBC-report interviewing a variety of customers about the Oxford-project revealed. As a matter of fact, why wrap a cucumber in plastic, as someone acclaimed it is ridiculous that so often you need a PhD to work out how to remove the plastic [remove?] wrapping…
Unfortunately, as with any other consumer items – including the majority of foods in the western “convenience diet” – the marketing factor of labelling is many times more important than the item itself – thus the packaging is key to success. In contrast, “real-food” groceries, such as fish, meat, fruit and vegetables are subject to the practicalities of transport, shelf-life and attractiveness for consumers – which has made plastic packaging invaluable for large scale retail.
Romanticism vs realities in the middle class’s anti-packaging crusade
Packaging materials account for 44% of the plastic industry and produce 2 Million tonnes of waste per year in the UK alone. A first political attempt had been made by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in spring 2018 to share the cost of disposal, proposing earlier this year a “Plastic Packaging Tax” on the producer. However, this is still in its infancy and may also be criticised for not being determined enough – since only packaging consisting of more than 70% un-recycled plastics would be eligible. Clearly the UK government remains reluctant to bite the hands that feed them…
Whoever asks the question – pupils raising banners to save the planet, parents worrying about their children’s future and health, producers protecting their businesses, supermarkets trying to keep the wheel spinning – the answers are not comfortable. Re-thinking on all levels is inevitable. Reality is: it is not if but how all supermarkets will choose to be radical.
“Waitrose unpacked” addresses one of the most urgent matters of our time. Yet currently it is rather an attractive small-scale trial serving and pleasing those who are privileged enough to afford it. As Tor Harris, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility of the Waitrose Unpacked trial, reminded their loyal clients: “we are trying to find practical answers to customer needs”. Whether this has true impact on the problem per se is at the moment unsure. The question is: might this project further inspire a different awakening to old/new ideas and ways of “consuming” to support our genuine desire to create a culture which can better manage and protect a nourishing environment? Wouldn’t that be nice?!
Can the plastic-Pandora’s box be affordably and effectively challenged on the grocery-retail level?
We asked two critical consumers about their opinion, experience and verdict.