Why Tesco’s removal of plastic-wrapped multipacks is more than a sustainability PR stunt

GlobalData Retail 27 January 2020 (Last Updated January 27th, 2020 12:11)

Why Tesco’s removal of plastic-wrapped multipacks is more than a sustainability PR stunt

Retail powerhouse Tesco is taking the war on plastic to the next level, recently announcing plans to reduce 350t of plastic per year by getting rid of its plastic-wrapped multibuy packs of beans, soups, sweetcorn and tuna. And while it is one announcement of many in a grocery industry that is awash with retailers declaring new sustainability policies, this move stands out as having the potential to drive significantly more tangible change, even at the threat of upsetting convenience-focused shoppers.

Initiatives aimed at reducing supermarket’s plastic output are nothing new for 2020. The last two years saw almost all of the major UK chains, Tesco included, announce commitments to reducing plastic over the course of the next three to five years, targeting either the bags we carry shopping home in, own-brand packaging, or introducing trials of refill stations. And with five sustainability-orientated PRs already this year from the Big Four alone, it seems the ‘Blue Planet’ effect is here to stay in UK food retail.

But Tesco’s latest move is a step ahead of its rivals and a step in a different direction. This is not an optional extra for environmentally-conscious consumers, such as remembering to bring your bags for life or refillable pasta container when you visit your supermarket. And crucially, forcing big brands (including Heinz, Branston, Green Giant and John West) to fall in line with Tesco’s new specifications will inevitably in turn put pressure on other retailers when brands bid to create a more uniform (and cheaper) production line. With 25.8% of the UK doing the majority of its shopping at Tesco each week, the potential upside for the environment is substantial.

Does this strategy risk riling some of its customer base? Probably. Multipacks are incredibly popular, with 40% of Tesco baskets including at least one, and the prospect of instead having a heap of tins rolling around in the car boot will be irksome to some shoppers. Last week, Coca Cola announced it will not ditch single-use plastic bottles because it would alienate customers and hit sales, highlighting the conflict of consumer interest in convenience versus sustainable shopping. There will also be other issues for Tesco to deal with, ranging from the purely logistical (for example, the extra time required to stack shelves) to the potential loss of revenue as shoppers simply reduce the number of tins bought.

But this unapologetic infringement on consumer convenience will largely be beneficial to Tesco. As well as the bonus of being an actually ethical move, it will be lauded by the 60.7% of shoppers that consider product sustainability to be important when purchasing food & grocery. Furthermore, this will be a swiftly and widely executed strategy, unlike ASDA or Waitrose’s refill stations (which currently sit in a small number of stores); this policy will be quickly implemented across the whole of Tesco’s 2,658 store network at the start of March.