OPINION18 May 2022

Is it a wrap for plastic waste?

Europe Opinion Sustainability Trends UK

A new breed of shopper is waging a personal war on plastic waste. Carl West of Quantilope looks at whether people are prepared to pay more for everything from sustainable ingredients to packaging. 


David Attenborough’s Plastic Oceans film in 2016 painted a bleak picture about the damage plastic waste is having on the planet. It acted as a catalyst for change in consumer attitudes and, more gradually, action on the purchase and disposal of plastic.  But is there a price threshold for the new more planet-friendly behaviour that could reverse all the progress?

In our recent 2022 Consumer Trends in Sustainability study we discovered a surprisingly large segment of people who are so hypersensitive about reducing their use of plastic and eradicating plastic waste that they do more than anyone else to reduce it in their purchases, separate waste and recycle the plastic they do sometimes have to buy. 

These ‘waste warriors’ make up a third of UK shoppers and 42% of German shoppers. Typically older people, with a greater proportion aged 40 to 49 years compared with other segments identified in our study, waste warriors are more likely to be university educated, small city or suburban dwellers and earn a slightly higher income than average. They strongly believe that protecting the environment is one of the most important issues of our time.

They are less interested in the climate friendliness of the ingredients in their food. That’s the domain of our ‘ingredient inspectors’, who actively check for nasties, such as palm oil, which can have a less direct but no less devastating impact on the planet. Instead, waste warriors are focused strongly on factors with a direct environmental impact such as packaging. They are on a mission to eradicate plastic and have a zero-waste attitude.

Of course some plastic packaging is inevitable, and one third of all survey respondents claim to separate waste for recycling compared to half of waste warriors. More than half of shoppers ( 51%) plan to buy less plastic in the future.

The distinction of ‘waste warrior’ is less profound in Germany where more than half of all German’s surveyed ( 58%) identified in Quantilope’s segmentation as having a zero waste attitude. Around three-quarters of all shoppers actively attempt to reduce waste ( 77% in the UK and 71% in Germany) and more than half ( 51% in both countries) plan to buy less plastic in the future.

The price point of return
Assuming that a sustainable product carries a higher price point than similar products in the same category, and since half of the survey respondents claim that money is a barrier to more sustainable shopping behaviours, we sought to understand at what point the price of a ‘sustainable’ product becomes unacceptable.

We carried out a price sensitivity test on three versions of unbranded tomato ketchup, which we ran on separate portions of our sample so that we could avoid any order or priming effects.

The results were interesting. British shoppers were willing to pay more for natural ingredients and sustainable packaging. However, Germans are far less willing to pay a premium. They seem to expect natural and sustainable to be part of the normal bottle of ketchup at the regular price. Furthermore, because Germans are such keen waste warriors, it seems that proper disposal of the pack drives the optimal pricing for a sustainable package and the normal package. They do not distinguish.

Even when you find a segment of shoppers who identify as positive activists, such as waste warriors, price remains a critical deciding factor for some shoppers.

The lens of sustainability
Sustainability is a complex topic in the  minds of consumers. It means different things to different people. For some it’s about recycling and packaging, others are more concerned with natural, organic or sustainable ingredients. Some consumers will have multiple perspectives. As brands jumped on the sustainability train, some were accused of ‘greenwashing’, which serves to further confuse consumers, something our research confirms.

It is important for brands to understand how consumers have different needs when it comes to sustainability. Our segmentation of shoppers based on their ‘sustainability needs’ was done in the framework of MaxDif, which ensured we could identify what is most significant for consumers today. We could then group people into clusters who share common values and beliefs. We identified three broad groups of consumers – waste warriors, ingredient inspectors and broad brushers - in both the UK and Germany that had consistent needs.

These segments help brands to align their own values with consumers based on their often complex sustainability needs. Sustainability is a journey of education and behaviour. Segmenting consumers empowers brands to establish the addressable market, manage their product range and pricing and evolve their environmental position in a safe but cost effective way.

Turning insights into actions
With rising inflation threatening disposable income, insights like these can help all manufacturers, regardless of their environmental and sustainable goals, understand how their own product pricing, packaging, brand positioning and communications on sustainable issues can impact intention and behaviour.

This is important given that attitudes to sustainability are not always closely linked to purchase behaviour, particularly when there are barriers that need to be removed or reduced to make sustainable behaviour easier. Money is the biggest barrier, with uncertainty about what is sustainable also reducing sustainable habits.

If consumers are priced out of shopping more sustainably it can impact their relationship with brands who make it difficult or impossible for them to meet their own sustainable needs. This could have a detrimental effect on both brand loyalty and plastic pollution. It’s up to brands to ensure that our war on plastic is not a wrap.

Carl West is business development director at Quantilope.