Sustainability fails: 10 brands that got it wrong

Sustainability fails happen to some of the world’s biggest brands. Check out these 10 (often hilarious) examples of CSR gone wrong.

Sustainability fails happen to some of the world’s biggest brands. Unfortunately, as we strive to make our products more environmentally friendly, it’s easy to make mistakes- especially if you aren’t using the right tools for market research or listening to your target audience.

Maybe we introduce a product that’s not in line with our brand image (or customers’ tastes). Or, in our efforts to be green, we switch to different materials that prove to be problematic? Maybe we’re simply unrealistic in our attempts to change consumer behaviour? Then there’s the worst sin of all – greenwashing a product that’s actually causing environmental harm.

In our round-up below, you’ll find examples of brands that suffered all types of sustainability fails – and see the fallout from niche audiences. But more importantly, you’ll learn how to avoid the common pitfalls when approaching eco-friendly new product development.  Spoiler alert: most of these fails could have been avoided with data-driven marketing!

The eco-warrior rebrand nobody wanted

Nike Considered eco-friendly range

You buy Nike because you’re sporty, because you’re motivated, because you’re style-conscious… you don’t buy Nike because you’re planning on chaining yourself to a tree in an environmental protest. What Nike’s ‘Considered’ range of environmentally friendly shoes failed to consider was its customer base.

The $110 shoes, which were made with brown hemp fibres, were quickly dubbed “Air Hobbits” by critics. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t sell well and were discontinued within a year. Thankfully, Nike didn’t give up on trying to be more sustainable, but it did stop making those initiatives consumer-facing

The lesson – if you’re going to push a green product, be sure it aligns with your brand perception and purpose, and check it’s something consumers actually want. 

Sidestep sustainability fails like these with consumer insights

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The additive-free paint that transformed rooms in an unexpected way

Valspar B&Q cat pee paint

Chemicals can be bad for the environment, which is why EU law restricts their use in things like paint. In an effort to be compliant, Valspar removed an additive from one of its paint lines… and very quickly regretted it. 

As the weather grew hotter, the brand, and its UK retailer B&Q, were hit with a slew of complaints about smelly rooms. The removal of the additive had allowed bacteria to grow, resulting in what the company described as an “ammonia-like” smell. But according to customers, it smelled exactly like cat pee. To get rid of it, rooms had to be completely redecorated, with Valspar footing the bill.

The lesson – don’t rush out a reformulated product as you try to reduce your environmental impact. Follow the NPD process and take your time to get it right or you can do more harm than good.

When your products are green but your packaging isn’t

Amazon's excess packaging

An Amazon customer who bought nine rolls of window film to make her home more energy efficient got a surprise when they arrived at her door in nine separate boxes. Despite being small enough to fit in just one box, staff at the Amazon fulfilment centre opted to pack them individually.  

Maybe they thought the customer would enjoy a tower of packages being delivered? She did not. “It’s completely outrageous,” she said of this sustainability fail. “Surely Amazon can do better to reduce their wrapping wastage and be more environmentally friendly.” Other people also blasted the retailer online for its unnecessary packaging. 

The lesson – making your product packaging as environmentally friendly as possible is great, but don’t forget what happens once it’s bought online and shipped to customers. 

The “environmentally friendly” straw that can’t be recycled

McDonalds paper straw can't be recycled

In a move to be more eco-friendly, McDonald’s announced it would cut plastic straws from its locations in the UK and Ireland, replacing them with a paper alternative. The fast food chain uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, so they touted the initiative as a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic.

But there’s a problem; where the old plastic straws could be recycled, the new paper ones can’t. Customers are told to put them in the general waste. And on top of the straws not being a greener choice, they perform poorly, quickly going soggy. A petition to reinstate the plastic straws currently has nearly 57,000 signatures. 

The lesson – don’t destroy trees to save the ocean. Take time to consider the lifecycle and overall emissions of alternatives before ditching plastic- especially if you’re launching a new product.

When your “green innovation” requires a completely new setup

Philips EarthLight bulb sustainability fail

Switching to energy-efficient light bulbs makes sense… but not when it means having to replace every light in your house. The Phillips EarthLight was shaped so that it was incompatible with almost every conventional lamp at the time. 

So, not only were customers expected to shell out $15 per bulb (when regular incandescent ones cost less than a dollar), they also had to invest in new lamps. Unsurprisingly, only the most committed green consumers were willing to do this and the EarthLight was quickly extinguished. 

The lesson – it’s not an environmentally friendly product if your customers have to replace items they already own to use it. Testing pricing is also important because consumers struggle to be green when it hits them in the pocket.

The air-polluting diesel car that claims to be “clean”

Volkswagen Clean Diesel emissions scandal

Remember when we used to think diesel cars were better for the environment? That’s the power of marketing. When brands greenwash their products though, things can dramatically backfire. 

Volkswagen admitted it had equipped 11 million of its diesel cars with software that could be used to cheat on emissions tests, all while merrily marketing the vehicles as “clean diesel”. When the scandal came out, the carmaker was hauled through the courts and ordered to refund eco-minded consumers more than $11 billion.

The lesson – if you’re going to make green claims, make sure you can back them up. And absolutely, under no circumstances, lie to consumers!

When your green packaging should come with a public health warning

Sustainability fails can occur in unexpected ways, as Frito-Lay discovered when it changed to biodegradable packets for its SunChips range. The plant-based packaging performed well in terms of protecting the snack but it proved to be a risk to customers’ hearing. 

The packets made so much noise, opening one clocked in at over 100 decibels – louder than a motorcycle. Disgruntled consumers created a Facebook group called “Sorry but I can’t hear you over this SunChips bag.” And when sales of the snack declined more than 11%, Frito-Lay starting listening to customers and pulled the packaging. 

The lesson – if you want to change your packaging, take the time to test it on a group of consumers first. It’s easier to fix issues at concept stage than it is to pull products off shelves. 

Test consumer preferences to avoid marketing fails

Read our guide to testing consumer preferences, from the right ad creatives to packaging and messaging.

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The “sustainably sourced” cocoa beans that come from farms using child labour

Nestle sustainably sourced child labour lawsuit

If you’re going to stick a label on your product stating that ingredients are sustainably sourced, you’d better make sure they are. In 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed against Nestle USA, claiming that the food giant’s supply chain involves child and slave labour. And it’s not the first time Nestle has faced these allegations. 

Nestle states it’s actively fighting against child and slave labour but acknowledges it’s a problem in the cocoa supply chain. It’s not just an issue for Nestle; the world’s chocolate companies have all missed deadlines to uproot child labour from their supply chains, but placing a ‘sustainably sourced’ seal on chocolate products has left consumers with a bitter taste in their mouths. 

The lesson – efforts to become more sustainable must be applied to your whole supply chain – and it’s vital to be transparent about any shortcomings. 

The compostable coffee pods that can’t be home composted

Kauai Coffee compostable pods

Since they can’t be easily recycled, coffee pods are a guilty pleasure for many consumers. How great, then, to discover a coffee pod that you can dispose of in your home compost bin? Kauai Coffee claimed its pods were “100% compostable” and “designed to go back to the land – not the landfill.”

But – as with all these sustainability fails – there was a catch. The coffee pods would not decompose in ordinary home compost heaps; they had to be sent to industrial composting facilities. And since most homes don’t have access to these, the only place for these ‘green’ pods was in the waste bin with the rest of them.  

The lesson – be clear on correct disposal methods for your packaging. If it’s not easily compostable or recyclable, consider how you can help take responsibility for it, perhaps via a collection scheme. 

When your attempt to be green is embarrassingly half-hearted

Huggies pure and natural

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers, so it’s understandable that brands are keen to tell shoppers they’ve made products more environmentally friendly. But jumping on the bandwagon is not always the best idea, as Huggies found out.

It rushed out the Pure & Natural line of nappies by slapping a small piece of organic cotton on the outside of the nappy, alongside a higher price tag. Critics labelled the tactic a “bait and switch on an eco-health promise”. Huggies realised it had done a stinker, and discontinued the diaper in 2015.

The lesson – don’t try to make a product greener for the sake of it; make a meaningful change or don’t make it at all. Use shopper insights to your advantage when planning a sustainable product release. 

Don’t let these sustainability fails put you off improving the sustainability of your products. By doing the research that can inspire new ideas, and testing concepts as you go, you can help the environment and meet consumer demand. Check out our guide to conducting a great product demand analysis to get started…

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Bel Booker

Senior Content Writer 

Bel has a background in newspaper and magazine journalism but loves to geek-out with Attest consumer data to write in-depth reports. Inherently nosy, she's endlessly excited to pose questions to Attest's audience of 125 million global consumers. She also likes cake.

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