Disruptors: brands taking advantage of the War on Plastic

A number of disruptor brands have successfully tapped into the growing demand for plastic alternatives and are reaping the rewards of an ever-expanding customer base.

Over the last year we have seen a significant shift in public opinion and a growing awareness surrounding the effect of plastic waste on our environment, both short and long term.

10.3 million viewers watched the recent Emmy Award winning national history series, ‘Blue Planet II’ narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which has been hailed as instrumental in instigating this change. In a recent government consultation, the treasury called for evidence of public support for measures such as the “latte levy” on coffee cups and tax incentives for recycling. From the survey of 162,000 respondents, they found exceptionally widespread public support for strong action against public waste. In January, Theresa May pledged to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. Moreover, the government plan to expand the plastic bag ban to small retailers and will be banning single-use plastic in government departments. Evidently people are becoming concerned not just with disposable coffee cups, but thinking more generally about the impact of consumer habits and as such are expecting more from brands.

The trend of late has been to focus on how this poses a challenge for established brands, and how they will adapt to customer demands. Big chains such as Costa, Starbucks, and Pret A Manger have responded to the war on plastic by giving discounts to customers who bring in their own reusable cups. Pizza express, JD Weatherspoon and All Bar One are among some of the UK restaurants that have removed all plastic straws from their establishments. Major supermarkets are also jumping on this trend; Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have vowed to cut down plastic packaging and plastic waste. Equally, M&S and Waitrose have found that their decision to use plastic alternatives has meant cheaper production costs. Coca-cola and Evian are aiming to ensure their bottles are made from recycled materials and then are themselves recyclable. Additionally, ‘The New Plastics Economy’ is a three-year initiative, involving leading participants from across the global plastic packaging value chain, working together to help rethink and redesign the future of plastics. Core partners include Amcor, Danone, Mars, Novamont, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, and Veolia. People are buying into brands who have the same beliefs that they do, and as such placing an emphasis on sustainability proves to be profitable for businesses. For example, P&G reported that in 2018 sales of their natural products quadrupled and they predict it will double again in the next year. Equally, for Unilever their ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for 60% of the company’s growth in 2016, and they grew more than 50% faster than the rest of the business.

Most interestingly though, as a result of this shift in public opinion, not only are we seeing the trials and tribulations more established brands are facing, but we are beginning to witness the new opportunities arising for disruptor brands who are ahead of the curve and have successfully tapped into the growing demand for plastic alternatives. There are now a number of brands offering eco-friendly solutions to consumers across countless categories, but a number of brands in particular have capitalised on this especially well and are reaping the benefits from first mover advantage.

One of the most visible new markets to emerge from the plastic revolution is reusable bottles and coffee cups. KeepCup have created a very profitable business selling barista standard reusable cups in a variety of materials. The company was set up in Melbourne in 2009 with moderate success, but the business grew exponentially seeing sales increase by 400% following the broadcast of the final episode of Australian TV documentary ‘War on Waste’. At present, since their launch they have sold 8 million cups and since moving into the UK in 2012 they have doubled in size, citing Blue Planet as a significant catalyst for their growth. They now also sell personalised cups to those in a corporate, café or retail environment, who use the cups to help project consistent corporate responsibility and sustainability messaging. Their collaborations include partnerships with Microsoft, University of Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, the Bank of England, and LUSH, to name a few.

S’well are another brand doing very well for themselves in this sector. They sell stainless-steel bottles, marketed as a premium fashion accessory. The bottles are sold at a slightly higher price, ranging from £25 to £45, sold on their own website, as well as through upmarket department stores such as John Lewis, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. They are experiencing triple digit growth YoY, which is set to continue, as their new sub-brand, S’ip, (their smaller and cheaper bottles), will be available for purchase in 160 Boots stores nationwide in the coming months.

One of the most successful brands in this market is Chilly. Chilly’s reusable stainless-steel bottles keep your drinks ice cold for up to 24 hours and warm for 12 hours. They come in a range of designs, most recently including a collaboration with popular British designer Emma Bridgewater. Notably, Chilly have recently partnered up with Pret A Manger to create three bottles with exclusive Pret designs that are now sold in Pret stores as part of the company’s own efforts the reduce their plastic waste.

In addition to reusable water bottles, eco-friendly straws are one of the latest plastic alternative products to emerge from the environmental initiative. Etsy reports that searches for metal straws are up 205% over the past six months compared to this time last year, and for glass straws they have increased 63% in the same period. Straws, although they might seem small, contribute to large amount of plastic waste, in Britain 8.5 billion straws are used each year, and in the US 500m straws are used every single day. They can end up lodged in the nostrils of sea turtles and puncturing the stomachs of penguins.

Berkshire based company Ecostrawz sell two types of eco-friendly straws, those that are reusable (made from stainless steel, glass and titanium), and disposable (made from bamboo and wheat). They are biodegradable, compostable, non-toxic, chemical free, and a shopper favourite, claiming to be the UK’s number one for eco-friendly drinking straws. They sell retail packs and trade packs both on their own website and through amazon. Since the company was set up in 2013 they claim to have sold over one million reusable drinking straws worldwide.

Straws and plastic bags are the more obvious items that come to mind when we talk about the plastic revolution. However, slightly less apparent and perhaps more difficult to talk about, are menstrual waste products. They pose a massive problem to the environment that is not often talked about in the public domain.

The facts:

More than 80% of single-use period products contain synthetic materials and plastics. Pads can contain as much as up to four plastic bags worth of plastic. The average woman goes through 11,000 tampons in a lifetime and tampons are used by around 100 million women worldwide. The Independent reports that approximately 700,000 panty liners, 2.5 million tampons and 1.4 million sanitary towels are flushed down the toilet in the UK every single day. Each year, tampons and sanitary pads are estimated to produce over 100 billion pieces of waste. It can take centuries for both tampon packaging and pads to biodegrade, particularly when they come wrapped in plastic wrappers or with applicators. As you can imagine this is absolutely detrimental to marine life.

In an industry that has seen no innovation for over 80 years, there are a number of exciting new brands that think it might be time for a change.

THINX is a New York based company founded in 2014 that makes (stylish) period proof underwear that act as a substitute or supplement to feminine hygiene products. With reviews in women’s magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Clare, Elle, British Vogue, and Glamour UK the business is going from strength to strength. They are not only great for the environment, but THINX are helping to tackle period poverty experienced in the UK and around the world. TIME magazine named THINX period panties as one of the best inventions of 2015. They make roughly $40m in revenue annually and predominantly they sell through their website, but you can also buy the products on Amazon or in Selfridges, Oxford Street.

Mooncup is the original, soft, medical-grade silicone menstrual cup designed by women as the convenient, safe & eco-friendly alternative to tampons & pads. They last for ten years and only cost£21.99.Women’s Environmental Network has hailed it the most sustainable option for those looking to make their period more eco-friendly. Set up in 2002, they now sell to 50 countries worldwide with millions of customers and this year saw their net worth double.

Many of these disruptor brands market themselves as part of the solution and not the problem. Crucially whilst acknowledging the profitability of their businesses, they focus more acutely on how their products are making a difference. Demand for these environmentally friendly alternatives show no sign of stopping, as consumer needs are backed by governmental objectives, enforced by binding policy and legislation.

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