Pragmatism and pouch recycling: How Little Freddie is navigating the war on plastics as a challenger brand
EXCLUSIVE: With action on plastics packaging from governments and big businesses proving too slow for the public's liking, there is an opportunity for challenger brands to act more rapidly.
That is according to Little Freddie’s co-founder and chief executive Piers Buck, who set up the brand in 2014 after feeling dissatisfied with the environmental credentials of, and ingredients used to make, most baby food lines on offer.
Speaking exclusively to edie as part of the Mission Possible Plastics Week campaign, Buck detailed the success of the brand’s pouch recycling scheme which, from small beginnings, is soon to surpass its 500,000th collected item.
Developed in partnership with Enval, the recycling scheme originally saw consumers requesting flexible mailing bags in which to post their used Little Freddie pouches to a specialist recycling facility through the brand’s website. Between August and November 2019, the scheme saw a twelve-fold increase in demand and, as a result, Sainsbury’s has agreed to stock the mailing bags in more than 131 of its stores, with the rollout due to begin this month. The online offering will continue alongside this offering.
Buck told edie that two main drivers pushed Little Freddie’s decision to introduce the scheme and grow it rapidly rather than working on a longer-term project to redesign packaging or introduce national policy which would see its pouches recycled at kerbside – namely the firm's size and the public demand for immediate solutions.
“If you look at the largest baby food brands in the UK, they’ve talked about consumers getting together and getting their local councils to improve recycling for some years,” Buck said.
“Councils are under a lot of pressure for various reasons and, because some of them haven’t moved as fast as we would have liked, our approach was to go for the option that would be the quickest to implement, most consumer-friendly and have the strongest pick-up.”
All of the indicators suggest that the approach was a good choice from both a business and an environmental perspective. On the former, Little Freddie recorded a £52.5m turnover for 2019 and, on the latter, the scheme is soon to have diverted 500,000 pouches from landfill – 200,000 of which were surplus to supplier requirements and 300,000 of which were sent in by consumers.
But, despite the scheme’s success, Buck maintained that its implementation has not been without challenges – the biggest of which has been cost.
Another challenge has been engaging consumers around why Little Freddie is using plastic packaging that is not recycled by UK local authorities through kerbside collection – and convincing them, amid growing distrust in the recycling sector, that their used pouches will get a second life.
Buck maintained that pouches are, at present, the “lesser evil”. He explained that Little Freddie is yet to find a plastic-free alternative which would maintain shelf life sufficiently for its products, which are manufactured in Europe, to be supplied to the Chinese market.
“Consumers can live in a very idealistic world; shelf life and buying timelines are not things most people think about,” Buck summarised.
However, he was speaking before the publication of Green Alliance’s latest report, which has received coverage in most national newspapers and gone viral online over the past few days. The report details how, in the rush to go plastic-free, some food and drink businesses are introducing higher-carbon materials. It builds on suggestions that designing plastic packaging for reuse or kerbside recyclability can sometimes result in more material being used in the first instance.
Many sustainability professionals are doubtless hoping that the report and its wider context can pave the way for a more holistic discussion around plastic packaging with consumers.
For Little Freddie, the next phase of communication and engagement will be kick-started in the coming weeks, with the launch of the brand’s first sustainability report (written in “consumer-friendly” language) and a re-design of its website.
Buck told of how a key driver of the website redesign has been “honing” Little Freddie’s brand story, largely to re-iterate environmental sustainability as a “core component” of its work. This move, he said, will not only further engagement with consumers but help drive progress internally: “Once we go down this path, there’s no coming back. Publicly stating that we are ‘putting sustainability at the heart of what we do… will be like a hand on our back, pushing us forward. Whenever we look at new products and packaging, it will force us to ask ‘what is the environmental impact of this? Is this sustainable?’”
Collaborating on longer-term goals
Beyond the shorter-term excitement surrounding the website relaunch, report publication and pouch recycling scheme roll-out, Little Freddie’s Big Green Plan sustainability strategy includes 2025 targets to ensure that all packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable; to reach 30% recycled content across plastic packaging; and to reduce the absolute weight of all packaging placed on the market by 5% annually.
“2025 may sound a long way off, but in some instances, there is a lot of work to be done,” Buck said, explaining that Little Freddie will need to work more closely with suppliers and with other companies in the food and drink sector – and likely increase its engagement with national governments and local authorities around issues such as the Resources and Waste Strategy– to reach its goals as an SME.
“We are a small company; we need to be realistic about what we can do in regards to both the resources we have and our ability to influence suppliers,” he said.
“Our suppliers’ willingness to change their way of working will be less for us than it would be for [a large supermarket] …A bit of pragmatism is necessary.”
To that end, Little Freddie will be using its brand refresh as a time to re-assess its approach to communicating with suppliers and may, in the longer term, ask larger brands sourcing from the same suppliers to follow suit.
edie's Mission Possible Plastics Week: How to get involved
Running from 13-17 January, edie's Mission Possible Plastics Week includes exclusive interviews, podcasts, reports, webinars and in-depth feature articles – all dedicated to turning the tide on single-use plastics.
You can find a full list of the exclusive content which edie will be bringing you as part of the campaign, run in association withe Nestle, by clicking here.