Paper straws: Nestle’s missed opportunity

The Indian Government announced the intention to ban single-use plastic straws way back on 12th August 2021.

Since then, the FMCG industry that uses these plastic straws as a convenient add-on to TetraPak drinks has been kicking and screaming.

The industry group, Action Alliance for Recycling Beverage Cartons (AARC) first sought an exemption to plastic straws alone. But this was rejected by the environment ministry on 6th April 2022.

Then the industry body changed its stand – they asked for an extension of the July 1 deadline, by at least 2-3 years! This was also eventually rejected by the Government.

On a related note, one of AARC’s main contention was that almost 80% of the plastic straws attached to the small TetraPak cartons come back for recycling along with the straw! This is quite obvious if you think about user behavior – we poke the carton with the straw, drink the liquid, and throw the carton away with the straw still inside! Such arguments did not sway the Government, however.

Even Amul joined the fray in seeking an extension of the ban by one year.

Brands that produce and sell small TetraPak drinks had 3 choices in front of them:

  1. Do not include any straw at all and let users figure out how to consume the drink.
  2. Stop selling small TetraPak drinks altogether.
  3. Include paper straws instead of plastic straws.

1 and 2 are not real options anyway. 3rd was the only option and most brands, assuming that the ban would not come into force, or may be delayed, owing to all the industry lobbying, started scrambling for paper straws much closer to the ban date. So, paper straws were the only feasible solutions available.

Then, as the ban date drew closer, the news started changing.

From a June 23, 2022 news piece in Business Standard: “NestlĂ© India has already started attaching imported paper straws with its cold coffee packs and Milo range of products“.

And news from July 2, 2022: “We, at Mother Dairy, are in adherence to the new norms and have already imported paper straws in order to ensure compliance. Our carton products, that come under the purview, being manufactured from today (July 01, 2022) onwards will now come integrated with paper straws

And then Nestle went to town advertising the inclusion of paper straws!

The first ad was a multi-edition affair in The Times of India, on July 10, 2022.

Then, another one in Hindustan Times, yesterday (July 24, 2022).

To be sure, while many other brands in the same space are struggling, it is good that Nestle managed to be the first to bring paper straws into the product, and also the fact that they are working on bringing paper sleeves to store the paper straws too. Plus, the effort in responsible sourcing of paper – all this is commendable.

But the framing in the ad makes it seem like an independent decision (with no mention of the Government-led ban) and not a result of a Government rule that applies to all brands. If you see the ad the way it is, it seems like mandatory compliance was being framed as a corporate decision.

What is actually missing in this ad is context!

That context includes the fact that Nestle has been one of the earliest brands in this space to switch to paper straws! Here’s a snapshot, for context, from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Pakistan!

If you notice the dates, these switches in other countries in South East Asia happened before the August 2021 announcement by the Indian Government.

In India, Nestle first announced the switch to paper straws for Milo and Nescafe cold coffee in September 2021.

In fact, Nestle tied up with Royal Challengers Bangalore IPL team to promote the switch.

So, Nestle’s claim in the new ads in July 2022 is, in fact, independent of the Government-led ban. That is the context missing from the new ads.

I see that the ad has taken the step to address a much-derided earlier decision of Nestle – of covering the paper straw in a plastic pouch. This was made fun of all over the internet when this combination (paper straw + plastic wrapper) went live in South East Asia.

To see that they have taken that feedback into account and have proactively mentioned steps taken towards that is a good move.

But I wish they had also framed the idea to not make it seem like they are calling mere compliance as a self-initiated, conscious decision because it really was not. Since there is no mention of any timeline in the ad, the “First ever in India”, communicated in July 2022 seems incomplete, and like a missed opportunity. This was the opportunity to position Nestle as a pioneer in the true sense (And yes, I am aware of Nestle’s past infractions and poor decisions that run counter to this kind of environmental conscious decision), at least if you consider the narrow space of ‘paper straws’ alone.

The ad campaign, however, does not do justice to what Nestle really pulled off.

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