Education is Key to Sustainability

December 18, 2012

Consumers are demanding, and if we’re playing by the “rules” the customer is always right. Find out why consumer education is necessary if companies are going to make any progress in sustainability.

Consumer education is at the core of many issues, and retailers and CPGs realize this, but still a lack of education persists. A clear example of this is efforts towards sustainability. Consumers are demanding one thing, i.e. less packaging, and companies fail to educate consumers that some packages, in fact, improve the environmental footprint of the product. Instead companies are changing their packaging, but with greater (negative) impact on the environment.

An excellent example of this comes from the new book, Why Shrink-wrap a Cucumber? The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging where Stephen Aldridge and Laurel Miller debunk some pervasive sustainability myths. The authors explain that a shrink-wrapped cucumber lasts more than three times as long as its unwrapped counterpart. It will also lose just 1.5 percent of its weight through evaporation after two weeks, compared with 3.5 percent in just three days for an exposed cucumber.  According to Aldridge, “A longer life, means less frequent deliveries, with all their consequent energy costs, and, crucially, less waste [both in the market and at home]. Globally, we throw out as much as 50 percent of food... It typically goes to landfill and gives off methane, a greenhouse gas."

If consumers understood this, and were educated around the pros and cons of a shrink-wrapped versus not, most likely they wouldn’t complain about the extra wrap. Companies and retailers cannot exist in a bubble; we have an obligation to share with our consumers if our best ideas are to succeed, especially if they go against popular thought.

Some other great examples include the SunChips compostable bag by Frito-Lay. A well-intentioned move by Frito-Lay ended up in the dump just 18 months after its launch, due to the unfamiliar and annoying crunch the bag made every time it was touched or you reached in for a chip. Another interesting example as illustrated in Aldridge and Laurel’s book is the plastic grocery bag, which has now been banned in many cities across the nation. According to the authors, an Environment Agency study found that a cotton bag would have to be reused approximately 130 times before it became as environmentally efficient as a single-use bag… If the 'single-use' bag were re-used just three times as a shopping bag, the cotton bag would have to be reused 393 times to achieve the same carbon footprint." If we’re going to encourage reusable totes, we must educate consumers about their lifespan.

While consumers continue to pressure companies to be more environmentally conscious, it seems they still value convenience and predictability. But consumers have to be just as willing as companies to undress the sustainability issues. Sustainability much like many other current issues will take a variety of stakeholders to conquer. And education needs to be part of the equation.