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Sustainability for the Average Joe

Sustainability for the Average Joe

Sarah Steimer

row of spray and soap bottles

The typical American consumer is showing interest in sustainable products, and brands are starting to offer simpler ways to minimize environmental impact

Reusable containers have become big brands: Ball jars, Baggu shopping totes and S’well water bottles, to name a few. But far fewer brands have bridged the gap between consumable products and reusable containers. At least, not since the milkman dropped off full bottles and picked up the empties.

There’s been a small but growing subset of consumers who are keenly interested in choosing sustainable products, but more average consumers are beginning to seek out items with a smaller environmental footprint. According to research from Getty Images, 92% of more than 10,000 people surveyed said they believe the way we treat our planet now will have a large impact on the future, but 48% say that convenience takes priority even with the knowledge that they should care more about the environment through their purchasing habits. 

Big brands stepping into the field helps ease these shoppers into greener habits without expecting them to do much extra work. Plus, a known brand name brings assurance that the quality they’re accustomed to remains.

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Reducing Guilt, Increasing Convenience

A 2014 article published in the Journal of Business Ethics dove into the concept of how a reduction of guilt can drive consumer decision-making as it relates to sustainability. “We find that feelings of guilt and pride, activated by a single consumption episode, can regulate sustainable consumption by affecting consumers’ general perception of effectiveness,” the authors write. Their research, they concluded, could help with the development of sustainable marketing initiatives. 

“Consumers are feeling more and more guilty any time they put stuff in the landfill,” says Karen Page Winterich, marketing professor at Penn State University. But as the Getty research suggested, consumers struggle to overcome their need for convenience—despite their guilt. 

Some brands have decided to take matters into their own hands and offer reusable packaging. One notable and recent example is Loop. The online store and delivery service allows consumers to create an account and fill their baskets with grocery products—namely big brands such as Clorox, Febreze and Seventh Generation. In addition to the products’ costs, customers pay a fully refundable deposit for each reusable package, between $2 and $5 per item. The products arrive via UPS to customers’ homes in a tote bag, which they then refill with the empty containers once done and schedule a pickup. 

Heather Crawford, vice president of marketing and e-commerce at Loop parent company TerraCycle, says Loop’s customer insights team found that consumers want to choose a more eco-friendly product when shopping, but they don’t want to have to go out of their way to do it. “People feel really guilty every time they throw something single use in the trash,” she says. “They can imagine it going to a landfill, they can imagine it’s not being recycled, but they don’t know what to do—and there’s not really anything that’s actually accessible or convenient, or fits into their lifestyle that they can easily integrate into their lives.” 

Loop’s convenience is in the products being delivered directly to customers’ doors in reusable containers, which they can then send right back to be refilled when done. There are also plans to roll out a partnership with Walgreens and Kroger to carry the reusable packages on store shelves to add another layer of convenience. Such ease of use may have also helped Loop boost its numbers in recent months during the pandemic: When it looked like the needle was bending back toward single-use, disposable products in response to COVID-19 concerns, Loop reported a sales surge. (The company didn’t disclose specific figures.) 

“If you can get the convenience factor right, you can really drive higher levels of adoption,” Crawford says. 

Reducing Trial and Error

Loop provides another layer of convenience for customers: offering the brands they already trust. The trend of reusable packaging has been led in large part by start-up firms, so consumers seeking a more sustainable option are also faced with having to test these relatively unknown players. 

Winterich points to the so-called sustainability liability, a concept explored in a 2010 Journal of Marketing article. The research showed that sustainability is often correlated with gentleness attributes, which can be a liability if a product is purchased for its strength-related features. For example, consumers may be dissuaded from buying a sustainable car shampoo because they want a strong product and may perceive the sustainable version to be too weak. A brand such as Clorox has the name recognition of making reliable products; packaging it in a reusable container only sweetens the deal for a consumer. 

“I might be a very brand-loyal Tide user, but yet I start to see there are other options with less waste, so I feel torn,” Winterich says. “If Tide can actually offer me that lower-waste, reusable version, then I get the best of both worlds. I keep that brand loyalty that I’ve had for years and I’m still able to reduce my waste.” 

It’s another way that brands working with Loop aren’t asking consumers to significantly shift their behaviors. When it comes to sustainability, Crawford says Americans consider it to be a matter of individual behaviors—versus parts of Europe, for example, where consumers expect the government and corporations to step up to the plate. In fact, when Loop entered the German market, it was competing with an already robust packaging return program in the country. 

“Americans are used to voting with their wallet for things that are important to them,” Crawford says. “We’re used to paying a small price premium for sustainability initiatives. And [Americans] don’t necessarily look to legislators or big businesses yet as leaders who will solve the problem. In many cases, it’s actually individuals who are adjusting their own budgets and their own spending patterns to buy from products and platforms that they believe in.” 

Lead From a Mission, Build Community, Show Impact

Brands with reusable packaging could partner with a service such as Loop—Crawford says the company tries to make the barrier for entry as low as possible—but the key to marketing any sustainable product is to remain purpose-driven to the core. 

“[Consumers] want to spend on products and causes that they believe in,” Crawford says. “It’s incredibly important that you give them a clear understanding of what the value or mission of your product is, beyond just its regular features and benefits.” 

In this sense, smaller start-ups sometimes gain the upper hand. As Winterich explains, environmentally conscious brands often go beyond reusable or otherwise sustainable packaging by using ingredients that are eco-friendly as well. Start-ups have also helped to make reusable containers trendy, which pushes both consumers and larger brands to try it and be at the forefront. 

And the more something becomes a trend, the more it appeals to consumers who enjoy a sense of community. 

“As we see more and more brands emerging that are really driven by activism, with true purpose and cause behind them, it’s really important for people to feel as though they’re part of something,” Crawford says. “When they can see their community engaging with a product, when they see people that they follow on social media, when they hear their friends talking about it, and when a company reflects back to them how many other consumers are adopting a product or trend, it makes them feel part of something.” 

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.