Long-Term Plastic Pollution for Short-Term Profits
I saw the news that Coles Australia is issuing a second round of miniature plastic ‘Little Shop’ figurines. For anyone that missed them in 2018, the Little Shop figurines are branded miniature plastic representations of everyday products. You collect one for every thirty dollars spent.
I’ve commented before on the growing danger of ever shrinking particles of micro plastic entering the ecosystem. Knowing what we know about plastic in the environment, it astounds me that the Coles management, marketing and strategy teams are making these decisions. I can’t help but note that there was a similar reaction to the original Little Shop plastic figures in 2018.
Perhaps the reaction by a vocal few was because collectibles began washing up on Australian beaches by August of 2018. Indeed, they were apparently found as far as the waters of Indonesia. Though the short timeframe suggests it was carried overseas and dropped there, it is still a testament to the inherent disposability of the toys.
Others were outraged because Coles issued its first round of Little Shop toys just as plastic bags were being banned across Australia. A set of disposable toys for promotional purposes seems to run totally counter to a growing movement against easily neglected and disposable plastic goods.
Yet, in early 2019, Coles launched the ‘Stikeez’ campaign, which allowed people to collect small plastic fruit and vegetable toys for every 30 dollars spent. At the time it was reported that 7,850 people had emailed the Coles CEO in complaint. That might have seemed an early warning that any further disposable plastic promotions were not being well received.
Then, several days ago, Coles announced the re-launch of Little Shop, extended to include special new editions for 2019. Again, questions about the wisdom of offering small and easily disposable plastic toys as a marketing promotion arise. A petition started on change.org, asking Coles to discontinue the program. I watched the partition the other day. A new person was signing the partition every twenty seconds or so. Fifty thousand signatures have been collected in just five days.
It is an ironic repeat of 2018. The first Little Shop plastic toy campaign coincided with the banning of plastic bags. The Little Shop 2 campaign coincides with Plastic Free July, where
“Plastic Free July provides resources and ideas to help you (and millions of others around the world) reduce single-use plastic waste everyday at home, work, school, and even at your local café.” - Plastic Free July
Has anything changed environmentally that would make this an even worse idea in 2019 than it was in 2018? If you consider the oceans, a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that:
“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish (by weight).” - Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Considering the land, the ABC reports:
“Between 2,800-19,000 tonnes of microplastics are applied to Australian farmland each year through biosolids…” - ABC
It seems an ill-advised time to be creating more disposable plastic. Yet, everyone seems to be doing it. Woolworths isn’t immune from the plastic toy promotion. At the same time that Coles is launching the Little Shop 2 plastic toy campaign, Woolworths is offering its own set of collectible toys, the Lion King “Ooshies”. Granted, in a slightly improved service model, the Woolworth’s packaging is paper recyclable and the toys can be recycled via an in-store campaign organised by TerraCycle.
There is a deeper and rather insidious argument here, that it is the customer’s choice to take up the toys in the first place and their choice how they dispose of them later. As Coles reported to Business Insider in 2018:
“…The idea behind Little Shop is that customers can keep and collect them rather than throw them out. When customers are at the supermarket they have a choice as to whether they would like to receive a mini collectable or not.” (From Business Insider)
“At Coles we take our responsibility for managing our environmental and social impacts seriously…Whilst the mini collectables and accessories are not made from recyclable materials, our customers and enjoying and keeping them for the future which means they aren’t heading to landfill…” (From Business Insider)
This argument ignores the psychology behind the toys, which are primarily aimed at children. It’s children that place pressure on their parents to both collect the toys and in turn children that tire of them quickly, causing them to be easily disposed of. The marketing and advertising world that incepted the campaign seems evenly divided, between considering the campaign one of the best ever devised, as one headline notes;
“Coles Little Shop is one of the greatest retail marketing campaigns of all time.”
Yet, to advertising and marketing professionals worried about the impacts of the toys on the environment note;
"Speaking as an agency worker from the inner-west…I’m glad we’re disconnected from mainstream Australia and have the environment at the forefront of our thinking. We’re more likely to drive our clients to ideas that have positive effects on society and the environment and not execute a hard plastic, viral campaign especially in the midst of a plastic bag catastrophe. It’s a little cringey to see people in the industry commending an existing idea that produced yet another large amount of absolute garbage the kids will get over in a couple of weeks.”
It’s actually one of those comments, lost among the back and forth conflict that I think highlights a deeper incentive as to why Coles would do this. As one promoter of the campaign notes, in direct response to anyone concerned about the environmental impact;
“…You keep up the great work driving clients to ‘ideas that have positive effects on society and the environment…’ The grown ups in the room will keep selling stuff.”
Though that comment didn’t come from Coles, I think it sums up the theories behind the decision making. Why would Coles make these choices? Well, quite simply, they pay. In 2018, analysts at the time estimated that the Little Shop promotion added $200 million in sales and allowed Coles to pull ahead of its close rivals for that years sales.
You don’t need to have an actively malicious intent to end up causing harm to society. I’m sure that Coles marketing leadership wants nothing more than to create a successful marketing campaign that drives more frontline sales. However, there is nothing in this sort of plastic campaign thinking that attracts more customers to Coles because they have better products, better customer experiences, a better environmental record or fairer treatment of their staff. A toy campaign is a short-term solution that encourages children to manipulate their parents into spending more temporarily.
Even those that advocate for the campaign are aware they are being manipulated. Even those that promote the campaign note;
“Last week I purchased two Snickers bars at the Coles check-out to increase my $57.80 shop to over $60 so I’d be eligible for two Little Shop packets instead of one. I don’t even like Snickers.” (From Article on Mumbrella)
In the end, perhaps the Coles market results from late 2018 results speak for themselves; profits that peaked and the slowed, as the temporary nature of the first Little Shop campaign wore off, leaving everyone with a plastic hangover. Meanwhile, our continued focus on short-term thinking creates long-term problems that we will be dealing with for generations to come.
Plastic Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash