Plastics + Sustainability: Changing long-standing habits

Plastics are one of the most complex challenges related to sustainability. Navigating new production technologies, complying with regulatory frameworks, and addressing consumer perceptions can be daunting.

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July 14, 2021

Plastics + Sustainability: Changing long-standing habits

RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP has developed considerable expertise in giving clients clear, actionable, and powerful strategic insights to guide the development and launch of successful consumer sustainability campaigns.

One of the most complex challenges related to sustainability relates to plastics.  Global annual production continues to rise, now standing at approximately 400 million tonnes. We read and see images daily about how plastics are causing problems in the environment.  It is proving very difficult to change habits and make plastics a more sustainable material. Navigating new production technologies, complying with regulatory frameworks, and addressing consumer perceptions and behaviours can be a daunting challenge.

Problem plastic bottles and microplastics floating in the open ocean. Marine plastic pollution concept. 3D illustration

Recently a global packaged goods company approached RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP to help align one of their leading brands with a sustainability vision of the future. Our work employed the core practices of strategic foresight to help outline possible futures for the brand. The effort was divided into three phases of activity:

  1. Framing
  2. Horizon/consumer scanning
  3. Scenario Planning

At the conclusion of the three phases, this collaborative effort resulted in deep insights about how to work towards a sustainability position for the brand and the creation of a clear roadmap for getting there over a 10-year period.


During this phase of the project, it was critical to define the parameters of the project, set up guardrails for scope, and ensure that key stakeholders were given the opportunity to share their assessment of the current situation (internal mental model) and articulate corporate objectives. This was accomplished using in-depth interviews with corporate leaders and group workshop sessions. These efforts to fully frame the project are critical when addressing complex, difficult to achieve goals. During this phase we also begin to identify critical uncertainties that faced the effort. Critical uncertainties are the change/trends/issues most influential in terms of determining the future and the possible scenarios that exist for the brand. In this project, the working group ranked the importance of the uncertainty in relation to the future of the brand, and ranked them on how clearly defined the uncertainty was.


Success at identifying possible futures for the brand and deciding on a preferred future required a very clear assessment of the current marketplace conditions. RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP worked in a structured way to define the current situation vis-a-vis the use and disposal of plastic for food. This scanning resulted in the articulation of several signals and drivers of change outside the organization that could impact the future of the brand. We considered signals in the social technological, economic, environmental, and political arenas.

To complement this assessment, we conducted in-depth engagements with a selected group of category users/brand consumers. In-person and unstructured interviews were undertaken. The engagements made use of generative design research. Rather than ask the consumers direct questions, the researcher was focused on getting at underlying mental structures evidenced by the metaphors used to describe sustainability and the category. This formed the basis of a type of “consumer mental model” that provided a framework for the creation of messages and themes that could be used for the brand and category.

Combined and considered together the horizon scanning and the consumer engagements provided the foundation to more fully develop possible future scenarios for the brand – expanding our understanding of what could be.


This last phase of the research involved defining possible future scenarios, determining a ‘preferred future’, and planning a roadmap for moving toward that future. We identified four possible scenarios.  These could be plotted on a general grid where the future was defined on two broad dimensions.

RESEARCH STRATEGY GROUP conducted group workshops to help the client team develop a preferred future.  Taking that end point we undertook a process of ‘backcasting’ to create a roadmap for navigating the preferred future. Articulating alternative futures makes the organization more resilient to change.

The results of this strategic foresight effort were invaluable in determining themes of messaging that could be used to move the brand toward an aligned, credible, and relevant sustainability position in the category. The client has already integrated learning from the project into their product development pipeline, as well as new creative that aligned with the preferred future.

We would love to talk with you about your sustainability challenges. Please get in touch with us.

Jim Peterson, Managing Director |

Tyler Gilchrist, Vice President, Design & Foresight |

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