• As consumers become more eco-conscious and the media continues to scrutinise companies for their environmental footprint, fast-moving consumer goods players have incorporated sustainability initiatives as a central part of their PR and comms strategies.
  • Assessing the media profile of 10 key FMCGs, we found that greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution were the largest topics in the media debate, while Unilever, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola were the most influential companies.
  • However, we also found that FMCG companies’ messaging was monotonous and interchangeable, and that sustainability could turn into a reputation edge for corporate brands if they move beyond promoting specific initiatives and put green in the heart of category drivers.

Sustainability in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector once meant little more than coming up with some form of recyclable packaging and putting money into meaningful philanthropy. But now, under increasing consumer pressure, boasting sustainable credentials has become a top PR and comms priority for every FMCG player. Companies have started to invest heavily in publicising their efforts to address the numerous environmental issues in their manufacturing practices and supply chains.

Traditionally, FMCG brands have relied mainly on packaging to express and convey their sustainable identities, using labels such as “eco-friendly” or “recyclable”. However, many companies have also gone beyond the branding level and tried to build a reputation for sustainability by pushing their narratives to the mass media.

The need for consumer brands to engage in such kind of PR initiatives is twofold: first, an increasing number of consumers have started to engage way more consciously with what they purchase – they don’t just look at the “eco-friendly” branding of a certain product, but also inform themselves about the company’s actions and values.

Second, the media has started to pay much more attention to environmental issues and the way corporations contribute to climate change. Reports by non-profit organisations such as Greenpeace, which name specific players as contributors to the climate crisis, tend to resonate across a wide spectre of media outlets. As a result, PR teams are under constant pressure to get hold of the debate and elucidate how their companies are addressing the crisis.

Emissions and plastic haunt FMCGs

To analyse how the latest sustainability developments on the FMCG front have been reflected in the media, Commetric compiled a benchmark competitor analysis of 10 key FMCG players – Unilever, Nestlé , PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Danone, Procter & Gamble, Mondelez, Mars, Colgate-Palmolive and Anheuser-Busch.

We analysed 290 English-language articles in a set of pre-defined global publications. These comprised top mass media outlets like Reuters, the New York Times, Forbes and the Guardian.

We found that Greenhouse gas emissions and Single-use plastic are the most prominent topics in the conversation:

The Greenhouse gas emissions topic included many reports of how the FMCG sector contributes directly and indirectly to climate change, through sourcing or production and the way the products are used by consumers. Across the value chain, it was estimated that emissions could total as much as five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. According to the World Economic Forum, the manufacture of four plastic bottles alone releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car.

Similarly, the Single-use plastic topic featured reports of how throughout the pandemic, consumer behaviour changes resulted in greater consumption of packaging as more people shopped online and preferred wrapped products. A new Greenpeace report, which was cited by many media outlets, found that giant FMCGs are working together with the fossil fuel industry worldwide to oppose legislation that would restrict single-use packaging. It alleged that they together advocated for false solutions such as ‘chemical or advanced recycling’.

For more on this topic, read our analysis “Plastic Pandemic? How Covid Changed the Plastic Debate”.

The ESG metrics topic was concerned primarily with the financial side of the environmental, social and corporate governance conversation. For example, companies have issued nearly $240 billion of debt since last summer linked to ESG goals such as cutting carbon emissions, which gave them the opportunity to reduce their interest rate burdens for meeting specific targets, while also incentivising ESG investment.

The Deforestation topic was concerned mainly with the use of palm oil, which continues to be a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species. In the meantime, Regenerative agriculture was perceived as the latest buzzword within the sustainability debate. Topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity and improving the water cycle were among the developments discussed by journalists.

Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola lead FMCG’s sustainability debate

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around FMCG and the environment.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Consumer giants like Unilever, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé have always been at the centre of the climate debate, as corroborated by our findings in previous analyses. This is mainly because study after study found that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever are the four companies responsible for most of the world’s plastic pollution.

We found that most of the companies in our research sample managed to get media traction thanks to the specific initiatives they promoted. Their messaging included admitting that they are part of the problem and sharing how they intend to approach it. For example, Unilever, the maker of Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, emerged as the most influential company as many media articles within the Greenhouse gas emissions topic reported that it will offer investors a regular vote on its plans to tackle climate change.

The £118bn consumer goods group will put its climate plans to an advisory vote at its annual general meetings, after announcing ambitious plans to cut all emissions from its operations and those of its suppliers by 2039. Many journalists wrote that the move makes Unilever the first FTSE 100 company to offer shareholders a recurrent say on its efforts to address global warming.

Apart from Greenhouse gas emissions, Unilever also featured in the Single-use plastic topic, as the media mentioned the “Clean Future” global project, which includes the aim of halving the use of plastics in its packaging by 2025. The company also committed to “zero-net deforestation” in its supply chains, which made it a major part of the Deforestation discussion.

Unilever’s largest competitor, Nestlé, also owed its impact on the discussion that’s to the plans to the Greenhouse gas emissions topic, as it announced plans to invest 3.2 billion Swiss francs ($3.58 billion) over the next five years to progress towards its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The world’s biggest food group, which produced 92 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018, vowed to halve its emissions by 2030 and use 100% renewable electricity at its 800 global sites by 2025. It also promised full transparency and third-party certification to make its progress measurable.

The maker of KitKat chocolate bars and Nescafe coffee was also prominent in the Regenerative agriculture topic, as it said it would work with farmers and suppliers to promote practices such as restoring soil health, claiming it expects to source 50% of its key ingredients from farmers using these techniques by 2030. Deforestation was also a focus, as the company wants to scale up its reforestation programme, planting 20 million trees every year for the next 10 years in areas where it sources ingredients.

Coca-Cola, which traditionally ranks the world’s number 1 plastic polluter, focused its messaging on introducing new bottles made from 100% recycled plastic material in the United States in a major shift to combat plastic waste and reduce its carbon footprint. The soda and beverage giant said the new recycled bottles would help reduce its use of new plastic by more than 20% across its North American portfolio compared with 2018.

Coke’s biggest competitor, PepsiCo, promoted its efforts towards sustainability in packaging in Europe, where it has committed to eliminate all virgin plastic usage from its Pepsi brand in nine EU markets by 2022 by switching to 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). This is estimated to lower CO2 emissions by 40% per bottle.

PepsiCo also announced plans to reduce the absolute greenhouse gas emissions across its value chain by more than 40% by 2030. It has also pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, one decade earlier than called for in the Paris Agreement.

Danone, the French food group known globally for its Evian bottled water and Dannon yoghurt products, was prominent in the ESG metrics topic as it hopes it won’t be long before companies start to report the cost of their carbon emissions alongside traditional profit metrics. Danone claimed to be the first to have adopted a “carbon adjusted” earnings per share metric.

Also within the ESG topic, Procter & Gamble was defied by top institutional shareholders to do more to protect forests. Two-thirds of votes at P&G’s annual meeting were cast in favour of a shareholder proposal critical of how it uses palm oil and forest pulp, in what the media called an unusually big investor rebellion. The proposal was put forward by Green Century Capital Management, an eco-conscious investment firm, and was supported by BlackRock, P&G’s second-largest shareholder with a 6.6% stake.

Anheuser-Busch also took a step into ESG when it signed a $10.1 billion “Sustainability Linked Loan Revolving Credit Facility.” The brewing company’s loan incorporates a pricing mechanism that incentivises improvement in key ESG areas like water usage efficiency and recycled material use. Anheuser-Busch claimed this was the first syndicated facility of its kind among publicly listed companies in the alcohol sector.

Mars promised to eliminate its net carbon emissions by 2050, but tried to differentiate itself from other players by claiming its calculations will include the carbon footprint of its whole supply chain and the use of its products, as well as its direct operations. In the meantime, Mondelez promoted sustainable cocoa in a multi-brand campaign framed as the first to feature a “zero waste” retail design, while ColgatePalmolive has launched the first-of-its-kind recyclable toothpaste tubes.

Green FCMG faces

We also found that not many companies from our research sample managed to position their spokespeople as influencers in the conversation. Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestlé , emerged as the most influential spokesperson:

Mark Schneider was widely quoted as saying climate change was one of the greatest risks to Nestlé ‘s future business. He commented on the company’s plans to invest billions to progress towards its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, adding that he’s hoping to cut down on emissions using regenerative agriculture and scaling up reforestation in places where it sources the ingredients for its products.

PepsiCo’s Chief Sustainability Officer Jim Andrew was the second most influential corporate spokesperson, as he explained that his company’s emissions reduction plan will be comprehensive across priority areas such as agriculture, packaging, distribution and operations.

Another PepsiCo spokesperson, the company’s Chairman, and CEO Ramon Laguarta, was cited as saying that the severe impacts from climate change are worsening, and we must accelerate the urgent systemic changes needed to address it.

Unilever spokespeople made their way into the media by commenting on more general issues. For example, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer Rebecca Marmot said that the pandemic has shown the power major corporations can have on major issues like climate change.

And Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope said that five years after the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to shift the dialogue away from setting targets to the plan to reach the targets, because “the actions we take in the next 10 years will affect the next 200 years”.

A number of prominent bankers also found their way into the debate thanks to the ESG metrics topic. For instance, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink was quoted in reports about the investors that took part in the P&G revolt. Fink said in a letter to company chief executives that BlackRock was expanding its suite of ESG products because it wanted to “make sustainable investing more accessible to all investors.”

Jeffrey Ubben, who retired from the $16 billion activist firm ValueAct Capital Management in June to start Inclusive Capital Partners, an ESG-focused fund manager, said stock prices of many large companies had yet to fully reflect the global problems to which they contributed, such as Coca-Cola on plastic waste.

At the same time, Coca-Cola’s Chairman and CEO ]ames Quincey, wasn’t one of the top influencers in the debate, despite the prominence of his company. He was cited as saying that Coca-Cola’s effort to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging exemplifies the close collaboration occurring across the business and key stakeholders to drive positive change.

How can FMCG companies use sustainability as a reputation edge?

Our analysis shows that most FMCG companies focus their PR efforts on specific initiatives – nearly all of them pledge that they have set a target to achieve in a given period of time, e.g. to stop emitting greenhouse gasses by 2050.

This makes FMCGs’ messaging a bit monotonous and repetitive, and consumers might often find their communications interchangeable. In addition, the pledge-centred strategies could often sound reactive to the numerous research findings blaming corporations for climate change. Furthermore, they haven’t adapted their strategies to the pandemic and the new comms opportunities it has presented.

In order to stand out, players could diversify their approach by going beyond the media promotion of initiatives and tap into different facets of the sustainability conversation. In this regard, they could make sustainability a part of their corporate branding strategy by taking into account the following tips:

  • Use the “window of engagement” opened by the pandemic. Naturally, the pandemic and the issue of the environment have different places and roles in the mass media’s agenda, with the former shifting the focus from the latter. While this doesn’t mean that climate communicators should stop their efforts, research shows that there are pitfalls in communicating during a crisis like this. For example, talking about plastic bags while people are dying, losing their jobs or being trapped in their houses can backfire and harm the environmental cause. But the evidence also suggests that there could also be a “window of engagement“, as people might reflect on wider issues. In research commissioned by European Climate Foundation, the charity group Climate Outreach said that “Covid-19 can feel like a sped-up analogy for climate change’ because ‘Both are major health challenges, presenting a global threat to wellbeing in which the vulnerable are hit first and hardest, and personal and local action play a crucial role”.
  • Utilise the greater public interest in science. The fight against coronavirus, alongside the vaccine development process, has put science in a more prominent position in public perceptions. The critical role science plays in responding to a crisis is being elevated to such an extent that even the notoriously “bad” pharma companies experience reputational boosts as the coronavirus pandemic highlights their scientific expertise in developing medications and vaccines. As issues such as climate change have been increasingly politicised, and evidence-based decision-making has been discredited by certain officials, this is a chance for communicators to capitalise on this growing interest in science to move environmental causes away from political framing and into the scientific discourse.
  • Take advantage of the shifted perceptions of civic duties and responsibilities. The experience of coming together to handle a great crisis may increase confidence in collective response and foster a sense of personal efficacy and responsibility – the pandemic has shown that even small individual actions like wearing a mask can have a massive influence. As research on climate engagement consistently points to the importance of efficacy — the belief that individual actions do make a difference — climate communicators could tap into the newly emerged community values and reiterate that small individual actions like recycling could also have a massive influence.
  • Move beyond green initiatives and put sustainability in the heart of category drivers. Understand the biggest motivator in your category, and your audience, then weave green symbols and messaging through that. Brands that do this well use sustainability cues and play the drivers of the category they are in, rather than simply making ‘green’ all they are about. For example, Tesla focuses its messaging on innovative design and performance – the category drivers in the auto industry – rather than sustainability, which helped it become an electric auto powerhouse. In the FMCG category, such an example is Oatly, the plant-based milk brand. By first working to educate baristas on how to make a great flat white with oat milk, it established the product’s taste credentials, then had fun educating people about the brand’s green perspective on life. By owning up to what drives the category – taste – Oatly nudged us to buy its product and go green by default.
  • Attain better understanding of sustainability attitudes. Attitudes to sustainability are not so black and white. Rather, they are complex and multi-dimensional. It is not just the Greta Thunbergs and the Donald Trumps of the world, but also many more in between. On the other hand, there is also a strong belief that small steps, incremental changes, a ground-up approach is crucial to deliver real and lasting change. While on the one hand, platforms like Instagram and Twitter offer a solid space to share strong opinions to build momentum and pressure for action for outwardly motivated individuals, there is also a “silent majority” who are not as active on the medium, but who do care and share their contribution or even explore ways of contributing towards the cause.
  • Start treating ESG as an issue beyond finance and investor relations. As we saw, ESG in the FMSG sector was discussed mainly in its financial aspect. However, the ESG concept can be used as an opportunity to build your brand and corporate reputation by showing how your company actually delivers “purpose”. Our recent research actually shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics are very popular among millennials.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.