The Ethical Tipping Point: Affecting Consumer Behavioural Change in Plastics Waste

Written by Davina O'Donoghue

Sir David Attenborough’s program, Blue Planet II, was a tipping point quite possibly unlike any other in our mass media history. Consumer behaviour and consequence were suddenly undeniable and for one brief moment, an intention was born to do things differently: to attempt to stem the suffocation of our planet with this epoch’s most brilliant invention – plastic. Specifically, single-use plastic.

The government and big business appear to have grasped the nettle and in ways that can be offset against the economic consequences of drastic change. However, such undertakings appear remote and their visible implementation too far in the future for motivated and frustrated consumers.

“Turning the tide on plastic pollution requires a new approach to the way the world produces, uses and manages plastics,” says Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “That kind of change starts with mobilising individuals.”

Exactly 12 months on, RDSi set about speaking to just those individuals to ascertain where the engaged consumer finds him or herself today. Through proprietary research we see an unequivocal picture of the tension between the desire to affect change and the reality of shifting highly ingrained, convenience-based, consumer behaviour.

Frustration is palpable in the social media space:









Using a list of 22 commonly cited plastic reducing activities we explored which ones consumers had adopted most readily. What emerged was a marked tipping point where action noticeably dwindled relative to intention. In short, after a certain point the spirit seemed willing but the flesh not so much. Why?









The more commonly adopted behaviours shared three basic tenets.


Blue Planet created a receptiveness to the subject of plastic waste, seldom seen outside sensational political news or scandal. This means that the individual sense of responsibility can endure and the fading memory of the consequences of inaction can be easily heuristically triggered.


Plastic Heuristic

Single use plastic, in its most simple sense, is easier to eschew if you can see it and reject it based on an easy heuristic. The top 11 undertakings from our panel all have strong ‘bad plastic’ images and the media coverage to ensure the impetus is there. The majority of the behaviours languishing in the bottom 11 don’t represent plastic in its most media-driven-demon form. Consumers have a narrow visual heuristic to which they easily default. This can lead to the accidental exclusion of many everyday single use items than don’t look the part… cotton buds, pretty shampoo bottles, etc.


A Convenient, Available Alternative

The changes that have seen the most widespread adoption are those for which there is an accessible and easy to use alternative available. Easy to use is key. The changes that consumers are struggling to make, require complex behavioural change and as all marketers know, this isn’t easy. Messaging and brand are not enough on their own.


How to affect behavioural change in consumer plastic waste

We know there are plastic free / recyclable / recycled options out there, some available in mainstream, so why have we not jumped on board with these yet?

Why do we still have a consumer values-action gap?

You cannot change consumer behaviour by simply removing a negative. To change behaviour you have to create a new habit. How best to do this?


Reduce Confusion: Signpost Clearly

Probably one of the most cited issues from the consumer perspective is the difficulty in decoding what they are buying with regard to recycled / recyclable / mixed provenance plastics / non-plastic alternatives. If the consumer feels that the producer has not been explicit in their packaging intent, the failure lies with the brand and the consumer will exonerate themselves from trying any further to make the ‘right choice’.

Lush is an easy example of a brand that leaves no one in any doubt. It has a very ‘naked’ product display and much of the simplicity of this obvious positioning lies at the heart of the consumer success it has enjoyed. The brand had 25% projected growth as of 2016/17 and produces 60% naked products (no packaging at all). For a consumer seeking clarity, this is incredibly clear.

New brands with clearer waste reducing formats could rapidly take advantage of this perceived delay from the big boys. The less ambiguity there is, the more likely the format is to deliver the consumer habit change.


Manage the Consumer Environment

If you want your consumer to change their behaviour, give them the tools to do it. You cannot replace one behaviour with no other behaviour… that is pure sacrifice and it won’t work.

This could be as simple as providing samples of your product for your potential consumers to interact with as they replace their ‘old plastic habit’. If you want your consumer to try your naked shampoo, give them some and give them the receptacle in which to store it and proudly display it. You can’t expect the consumer to ditch their shampoo of choice if you don’t offer them an alternative which pleases them and which becomes part of their mental and physical landscape.

Until the Molton Brown Elemental Arc did we ever think we needed hand cream as much as we needed hand wash?


Reward: Just Ask Pavlov, Skinner or your dog

This year, Coca Cola partnered with Merlin Attractions and placed Reverse Vending Machines at key attractions in the UK. The reward for recycling on this occasion was a 50% off voucher for other Merlin Attractions. Simply by creating a clear pathway to action at a moment when normally mental availability to the issue would be low, the behaviour is made easy, memorable and enjoyable. Thanks to the reward it is very likely to be repeated.

Across cities in APAC, reverse vending can turn plastic waste into bus tickets, shopping vouchers and other rewards. How much more frequently would you have visited your local bottle bank if there was a voucher on offer? No more looking like a raving alcoholic once every 6 months!


Positive Peer Pressure

Changing widely normalised behaviour in a vacuum is hard. Ask any dieter and you will understand the success of Weight Watchers. Feeling connected to others making the same changes can increase the likelihood of lasting behavioural change. Many ethical communities exist online now and brands that can honestly align themselves with waste reduction values can live in these spaces so long as they are transparent (not perfect, no one is) and encouraging. Movements such as Movember and Stoptober have illustrated the power of social collectivism and #plasticfree for a day/ week / month is a space waiting to be filled by a brand with a good story to tell.


It feels as though a majority of consumers we saw have travelled as far as they can on their own and now is the time for brands to build the bridge to an even more waste-free future. Not in 10 years’ time. Now. Your audience is ready and waiting.