Supermarkets Coles and Woolwoorths are today under fire over their latest attempts to prop up quarterly sales by handing out collectible items.
Both companies on Wednesday launched new generations of their long-running and popular collectible promotions.
Coles’ “Little Shop 2” will attempt to replicate the financial success of its predecessor scheme, with 30 new plastic figures to collect.
Coles’ collectibles also come in their own plastic packages, and collection books are available which also appear to contain plastic elements.
Woolworths, meanwhile, has partnered with Disney’s The Lion King to launch nine animal-shaped “Ooshies”, which it says are made from an “FSC material” that can be turned into plastic pellets.
Both businesses have been trying to replicate the runaway success of Coles’ original Little Shop promotion, which analysts estimate bagged the supermarket $200 million in extra revenue last year.
However, the supermarkets have been accused, not for the first time, of lining their pockets by selling out the environment.
An online petition surfaced over the weekend calling on Coles to “stop giving out plastic junk” and cancel the promotion, receiving 29,500 signatures in just five days.
“You have just proved you really do not care for our children’s future by bringing these so called ‘collectables’ back,” petition author Sara Coates said.
“You are handing out plastic junk that will end up in landfill or in our oceans.”
Eight million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the world’s oceans each year, while recent investigations have shown Australia’s own plastic waste is polluting local waterways, including the Great Barrier Reef.
Sadly, with these products washing up on beaches thousands of km's away, I don't think these are working, or that people are actually "keeping these items". https://t.co/7iVdhp1HKw
— Sophie Cross (@SquamataOut) 16 July 2019
Both supermarkets are launching their campaigns in the midst of Plastic Free July, an international campaign attempting to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
While Coles and Woolworths have both pledged to reduce their role in contributing to plastic pollution and, in response to bans, have phased out single-use plastic bags, they are now being accused of hypocrisy.
University of Tasmania’s retail expert Louise Grimmer says customers are getting mixed messages.
“They’re saying they’re doing everything they can to cut down on packaging, and yet they’re creating these promotions,” Grimmer tells SmartCompany.
“It’s gross hypocrisy.”
A Coles spokesperson, pointing to in-house research, claimed 94% of customers who obtained a collectible last year have kept them or given them away.
“The campaign only runs for a limited time and customers who choose to collect them are able to recycle the wrappers at their nearest Coles through our in-store RedCycle program,” the spokesperson said.
“For Coles online deliveries, mini collectable packaging can be returned to the driver, and recycled through the RedCycle program — one of the largest retailer-operated recycling programs of its type in Australia.”
But Grimmer, an academic with more than eight years’ experience reviewing and conducting customer research in the retail sector, questions the veracity of the findings.
“There hasn’t been enough time to conduct research suggesting people aren’t going to throw them away,” Grimmer says.
“It’s easy to say, ‘everything we are selling is recyclable’, but all of the research I’m reading now is saying that’s not enough.
“We actually have to stop manufacturing these types of things.”
Other academics agree with Grimmer, pointing to the need for larger changes in consumption habits that remove plastic from the market altogether.
Grimmer says the promotions are financially successful for the companies, and in a market where a big quarter for Coles creates an awkward investor call for Woolworths, spin is often prioritised over environmental honesty.
“As long as these promotions are successful for the companies they’ll try to spin the promotions,” she says.
For its part, Woolworths said “Ooshies” can be handed back and turned into plastic pellets.
“We’re passionate about the circular economy, and have established a partnership with TerraCycle to turn any pre-loved Ooshies into plastic pellets,” programs manager Sarah De La Mare said in a statement.
“The pellets will be used to make outdoor products such as garden beds, decks, fences and benches.”