(Oct. 13, 2008) — Will the credit crunch put an end to consumer concern about sustainability and related environmental issues?
Two speakers at the recent Sustainable Plastics Packaging 2008 conference in London raised the issue, and they had some points that are worth considering.
First, listen to Martin Bunce, founding partner of Tin Horse, a Marlborough, England-based product and packaging design firm. Bunce said concerns about sustainability, which had been growing, might slip now that economic worries have become consumers' No. 1 issue.
According to a report by our sister publication Plastics & Rubber Weekly, Bunce told conference attendees that even before the banking crisis began to dominate newspaper headlines, consumers were showing signs of “green fatigue.” He compared the trend to the weariness with environmental and ethical issues that seemed to occur in the 1990s. If he's right, perhaps we should get ready for sustainability-related issues to move off the front burner, and maybe completely out of the kitchen.
In the late 1980s, environmental issues were quite prominent: Remember all the efforts to ban various packaging and food-service products? And how the plastics industry attempted to deal with the bans by stepping up recycling?
Then, with the recession of the early 1990s, concern about the environment seemed to vanish. No one talked about bans anymore, and communities had more pressing issues to address. And since no one seemed to care, all the pledges that industry made to head off those bans were quickly forgotten.
Also consider Michael Sturges, operations director at Edge, a Guildford, England, packaging consultancy, who said he has already seen changes in consumer behavior. Organic food sales, for example, have slowed this year in the United Kingdom, while discount food retailers are boosting market share to record levels. He said this suggests consumers are making decisions based on price and quality, while environmental issues have become secondary.
Sturges did not suggest sustainability will go away completely. In fact, he believes the credit crunch could end up encouraging more sustainable consumerism. “People are going to be more discerning about consumerism and waste,” he said. He added that the current environment offers plastics companies a chance to promote the benefits of plastics, including energy efficiency and cost savings.
I believe Sturges and Bunce are right — but with some significant caveats. I expect we will see a slowdown in the number of communities considering things like bans on polystyrene food service and plastic T-shirt bags. To put it bluntly, most cities will have more urgent concerns than whether coffee cups degrade.
But health and safety-related issues will not go away. The plastics industry will have to continue to deal with parents' concerns about the effects of exposing children to bisphenol A and phthalates. And I do not think that the marine debris issue will disappear — at least not in hotbed places like the California coastline.
Don Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News and author of The Plastics Blog.