Coles has been accused of “greenwashing” after pledging to scrap the Little Shop and Stickeez promotions, which haven’t run since early 2020.
The supermarket giant announced on Friday that it wouldn’t hand out plastic toys with groceries again in a new sustainability push, after years of sustained criticism from environment groups.
During the height of the promotions in 2018-19 Coles’ plastic toys were found washed up on beaches, sparking widespread community uproar.
But Coles has not run one of its plastic toy promotions since pre-COVID days amid what supermarket analysts called “collectibles fatigue”, suggesting the toy campaigns aren’t the money-spinners they used to be.
Heidi Tait, chief executive of marine clean-up organisation Tangaroa Blue Foundation, supported the move but said the environmental damage had already been done.
Ms Tait told The New Daily that Coles failure to apologise on Friday for profiting off Australia’s plastic waste crisis amounted to “greenwashing”.
“We don’t believe that this decision should be one that gives Coles any credibility or congratulations,” Ms Tait told The New Daily on Friday.
“Failures like these should never have passed through internal approval processed to start with.”
Green washing describes businesses conveying the impression they are environmentally friendly, when the reality of their record says otherwise.
Other advocates have praised Coles.
Cleanup Australia chair Pip Kiernan said the supermarket’s decision wasn’t just “lip service”.
“This is part of a broader strategy by Coles to move to being more sustainable,” Ms Kiernan told The New Daily on Friday.
“They’ve phased out single-use tableware … they’ve removed 31 million soaker pads from meat trays, and they’ve moved towards more recycled content in their packaging of baked goods.”
“They’re walking the talk … we’re really heartened by that.”
Australia is still losing the fight against mounting plastic pollution.
Plastic waste rose by 5 per cent in Australia during 2020, according to CleanUp Australia’s latest national rubbish report.
Coles chief marketing officer Lisa Ronson said the decision to kill off the promotions was made after customer feedback.
“While very popular, we must listen to our customers who say their priorities are changing,” Ms Ronson said in a statement on Friday.
But Gary Mortimer, retail expert at Queensland University of Technology, said promotions like Little Shop have become less popular after driving massive sales growth for Coles when they first launched in 2018.
“There’s fatigue when it comes to collectibles programs,” Professor Mortimer told TND.
“Little Shop one was highly successful, but Little Shop 2.0 wasn’t as successful.”
Louise Grimmer, senior marketing lecturer at the University of Tasmania, said Coles’ decision to scrap the promotions was “significant”. But Dr Grimmer told TND the toys are just a tiny part of a monumental problem.
“These promotions are really just the (very visible) tip of the iceberg,” Dr Grimmer said.
“Work still needs to be done in reducing waste, particularly packaging and plastic waste that is part and parcel of the supermarket [model].”
Woolworths defies the trend
Dr Grimmer said the move will pile pressure on Woolworths to end its own plastic toy promotions, including the popular Ooshies products.
“I don’t think Woolworths have any other choice,” she said.
“If I were Woolworths I’d be looking to go even further.”
Woolworths did not follow suit and pledge to kill its plastic promotions on Friday; a spokesperson said customers still enjoy its collectibles.
“We’re always mindful of the environment in our programs, and they’ve become more and more sustainable over the years,” they said.
“That focus will only continue as we plan new programs.”