In 2019's post-plastic landscape, brands will need to move beyond simplistic messaging and token gestures and embrace systemic change, as consumers seek meaningful relationships that reflect their own progressive values.

Duncan Baizley, senior commissioning editor at WGSN Insight, unpacks three of the seven sustainability trends that were identified in WGSN’s Sustainability and the Consumer 2019 report and explores how they will be key for business and industry in the coming year, as part of Admap's April issue on sustainability.

1. Corporate action lags behind consumer sentiment

Consumer awareness around sustainability had a huge moment in 2018, as widespread pressure and high-profile anti-plastic campaigns moved the debate from the narrow but vocal fringes into the mainstream. Brands were quick to establish themselves as responsible champions for conscious consumerism, particularly to appeal to millennials who will enter a period of peak purchasing power in 2020.

According to data from an August 2018 Nielsen report, 81% of respondents of a global survey felt strongly that companies should help to improve the environment, with millennials (85%) coming out ahead as the generation that said it was "extremely" or "very" important that companies work to improve the environment. With these consumers projected to be spending $150bn on sustainable goods by 2021, brands have accelerated messaging that highlights their environmental credentials, from UK food retailer Iceland announcing its goal to be plastic-free by 2023 to Starbucks and McDonald's partnering to launch the NextGen Cup Consortium's challenge to create a completely compostable and recyclable cup system.

But analysis by PwC in 2018 discovered that while 72% of companies mention the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – which include responsible consumption and production – in their annual reporting, only 27% include them in their business strategy. So, while awareness has increased, action still lags behind consumer sentiment, with the danger being that brands will lose shoppers' trust and become disconnected from the conversation, regardless of messaging.

2. A zero tolerance for waste

In January 2019, Singapore launched its Year Towards Zero Waste, a government initiative to encourage a "strong 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle) culture". The strategy targets food, packaging and e-waste, as well as recycling, with calls to action that include "buy only what you need", "donate excess food" and "choose products with less/green packaging".

As domestic policy begins to reflect wider consumer sentiment for The End of More, the negative impact on brands that fail to implement a long-term strategy for reducing single-use products and packaging will grow. Shifting international markets may also restrict brand growth if products and services fail to meet local expectations for sustainability.

Take inspiration from the Japanese town of Kamikatsu (population 1,482), which first adopted a zero-waste policy in 2003 and by 2016 was recycling 81% of its waste, with a target of 100% by 2020. In 2017, it established a Zero Waste Certification programme for local businesses, which spread to other parts of Japan in 2018 and is now attracting global interest.

"Precyclers" – consumers who are already actively avoiding single-use plastics – will be an emerging tribe in 2019. These conscious shoppers will be deterred from purchasing if goods and services fail to meet their own commitment to sustainable shopping. To appeal to this group, brands should emphasise reduce and reuse over recycle, particularly around packaging, and offer discount for reusing containers.

Launching in the US and France in May 2019, Loop is a circular, zero-waste shopping platform that will supply products by big name brands including Häagen-Dazs, Tide, Dove and Hellmann's in reusable containers, that are returned, sanitised, refilled and sent back to the consumer when empty.

3. The phrase “not currently recyclable” on packaging will become a barrier to purchase

The message of how single-use plastics impact on the environment, and particularly the oceans, went mass in 2018, and brands have been quick to respond. Although most packaging strategies continue to place the responsibility on the consumer to manage the supply chain of reusable materials through effective recycling.

However, this supply chain has come under increased pressure, specifically from China's decision to ban foreign imports of 24 categories of recyclable materials in January 2018, with further categories to be added by the end of 2019.

According to data from "The Chinese import ban and its impact on global plastic waste trade", a June 2018 research paper, 89% of the 10,225m metric tonnes of plastic waste China imported in 2016 originated from single-use food packaging. It also estimates that the impact of China's policy will result in 111m metric tonnes of plastic waste being displaced by 2030.

As this sustainability-focused consumer segment continues to grow, the phrase "not currently recyclable" on packaging will become a barrier to purchase, driving more customers to seek reusable and sustainable alternatives.

Strategies in 2019, therefore, should move away from messaging that simply passes post-purchase responsibility on to the consumer. Instead, explore opportunities that exceed consumer expectations by targeting goals that reduce avoidable residual waste at source, such as eliminating non-recyclable plastic, particularly in consumer electronics and food packaging.

If 2018 saw the beginning of the end of plastic, then 2019 will see the emergence of bio- and organic-based alternatives for everything from beauty products to leather and meat.