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Published January 21st 2019

The Last Straw: Consumers Are Concerned About Plastic, and Small Changes From Big Brands Aren’t Enough

As we see more brands making large scale changes around causes their customers care about, will we begin to see significant stands made on plastic?

It’s not just you noticing more and more buzz about the ill-effects of plastic.

Conversations around plastic across social media increased by almost 300% from 2017 to 2018.

Collins Dictionary named “single-use” the word of 2018.

Shows like Blue Planet raised awareness around the issue – potentially more than charities like Greenpeace.

Influential individuals like @DannyDeVito and @kanyewest are weighing in on the issue, reaching millions of people with their concerns.

It’s an issue that’s growing in momentum.

This is a year-round phenomenon

Consumers aren’t waiting for World Earth Day or other similar international celebrations to make their voices heard around plastic, even though this tends to be when the verified accounts seem to tweet about it most.

The highest peak in plastic conversation in the whole of 2018 was nothing to do with World Earth Day.

There are many aspects of anti-plastic arguments, but conversation around almost all of them grew over the year.

Here’s how these topics manifested themselves within plastic conversations across 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Taking action, big and small

Companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s pledged to ban plastic straws from their stores in 2018.

These moves may have received praise initially but it was soon revealed that plastic straws aren’t exactly the worst thing plaguing our oceans (making up just 0.03% of all ocean plastic waste).

Clearly, bigger changes need to be made, and consumers are actively saying it’s not enough. But how can brands begin to go about making changes that’ll make the biggest impact with consumers?

Social listening is one way to break down exactly what consumer concerns are in order to prioritize what changes need to be made.

Clearly, plastic packaging is a concern. Brands can break down conversation around their products and plastic to see exactly what language consumers are using to voice their concerns, which can be helpful both for making the changes themselves and then communicating them.

Here’s an example. Our data shows that words relating to pollution are most strongly associated with this food and beverage brand when it comes to plastic waste, while “sustainability” and “ocean” are more commonly used than “environment.”

Change isn’t easy

We’re seeing more and more brands take strong stances on societal issues (see our analysis of Nike’s Colin Kapaernick ad, or Gillette’s latest slogan update).

These changes can have a huge positive impact for a brand if the values they are acting on match with those of their consumers and the changes made are meaningful.

That’s why cutting out plastic straws, an arguably tiny change, might not be enough to bring consumers on-side.

It’s only when brands take large steps (which often take large investments and large risks) that consumers will really get behind you, and plastic seems to be a relatively safe bet in thhis regard – it’s clearly a growing trend that won’t be disappearing any time soon.

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