If I had to pick one of my favourite all-time snacks, the Sensations Thai Sweet Chilli crisps by Walkers would definitely be in that top-tier shelf. The perfect mix of salty spices, layered over that subdued sweetness, and the tiny bit of heat that lingers after each bite is what keeps me coming back - no other crisps I’ve had reach the same level of flavour punch and sophistication (obviously in my opinion)! BUT, the real question is... does the flavour justify any damaging unsustainable effects this product has?
In the UK alone, consumers buy six billion packets of crisps a year, with potato and carbohydrate snacks often replacing more substantial and nourishing meals during the day. One of the issues that arise from crisp consumption is the massive amounts of waste from single-use packets, not to mention the large amount of C02 emissions created by crisp factories and the general production process. After doing some research on this specific product, (and the Walkers range, and its parent brand PepsiCo), I realised that crisps are perhaps not the most sustainable option in general, it is a FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Good) after all, and within these sectors, single-use plastics and intensive consumption is prevalent, and although these goods remain unsustainable as a result of the current ecosystem they are in, many FMCG companies including PepsiCo have set ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions and waste production, making processes more circular and beneficial to the environment.
To ensure that their potatoes are sustainably sourced, grown and harvested, Walkers have research what sustainable agriculture looks like all over the world - from environmental regulations to labour laws - and launched their Sustainable Farming Programme (SFP) where they’ve developed 114 principles that define Walkers’ environmental, social and economic responsibilities.
So while crisps will continue being the more unsustainable option for now, strides are definitely being made towards more sustainable systems and packaging, that hopefully one day we won’t have such conflicting dilemmas to live with as consumers. In the mean time, home-made crisps from potatoes can be just as good, or perhaps looking into other snack alternatives that don’t come in single-use plastic packaging could have a more positive impact.
The ingredients: Potatoes, Vegetable Oils (Sunflower, Rapeseed, in varying proportions), Thai Sweet Chilli Seasoning, Salt, Firming Agent (Calcium Chloride). The seasoning contains Sugar, Fructose, Buttermilk Powder (contains Milk), Dried Soy Sauce (Soya beans, Wheat), Tomato Powder, Onion Powder, Hydrolysed Soya Protein, Flavouring, Garlic Powder, Dried Parsley, Chilli Powder, Potassium Chloride, Dried Red Peppers, Paprika Powder, Colour (Paprika Extract). Excluding the very long list of seasoning that is inevitable in a flavour like this, the number of ingredients for the crisp itself is impressively minimal, which is good for reducing energy required during the production and sourcing processes. Furthermore, 100% of the key ingredients are sustainably sourced, including crops from third parties, such as vegetable oils and grains.
Crisps are inherently quite an unhealthy snack, with the proportions of oil and salt, it is definitely not the most sustainable food for our health to consume as humans. Hence, it is nice to see that PepsiCo UK have included goals to reduce added sugars, sodium and saturated fats to their portfolio of snack products.
In 2018, Walkers launched the UK’s first nationwide Crisp Packet Recycling Scheme, and have partnered with TerraCycle to make it easier to recycle their crisp packets. This sounds like it would be great, however, these packets are required to be dropped off at one of 1,800 public collection points around the UK. Once collected, they are cleaned, shredded and turned into small plastic pellets, used to make useful plastic items such as park benches, fence posts and flooring. As great as this sounds, it is not the perfect circular system we are looking for, especially when the recycling only works if users are bothered to find a recycling point near them, but unfortunately most users do not, the most common destinations being the rubbish or recycling bin, but in reality, even if it is recyclable it’s in all likelihood not going to be recycled. Bénédicte Wallez from Veolia, a French company involved in waste management, said “Lightweight plastic is indeed very difficult to recycle. We have little incentives and, technically, it’s complicated to separate the different linings”. So unless you are determined to recycle every plastic packet from walkers at an established recycling point, it might be simpler (where possible) if you just avoided conventional crisps from the get-go.
Another reason to avoid them is because of its inherently linear nature as the packets are not made from recycled materials; the law prohibits them from using recycled plastic for food packaging so no matter what happens at the end of its life (even if it gets 100% recycled), it still does not outweigh the environmental cost of using so much virgin plastic to begin with.
Walkers produce comes from 88 different British farms, across the UK and Europe. This is great that the company supports local resource production as this not only significantly cuts down on transport costs as it reduces the need for importing, but also creates jobs and supports local farms in the UK. However, for certain ingredients such as spices, they tend to source from abroad. Although the majority is being sourced sustainably, it would be interesting if the brand considered looking into innovative ways of growing some of these spices more locally seeing as there is such a large range of them.
Walkers have stated that they are constantly looking for ways to make the whole process from farm to store more sustainable, from improving the irrigation in their fields to reducing the amount of carbon emissions in their factories. An example of this is their circular potatoes drive that aims to cut carbon emissions by harnessing “the power of the peel”, and currently the Walkers Leicester Factory generates 25% of its electricity from potato peel! Certainly this kind of innovation proves that despite the many downfalls of their product, they are still constantly innovating, going above and beyond what is expected, and delivering in creative ways that contribute to a more circular system.
Walkers has been very transparent and accessible about the people who make it and where they source their ingredients from. As mentioned before, their potatoes come from 88 different British farms, and their sense of community is astounding as they have been working with some of these farms for 3 generations which is really heartwarming and impressive to think about.
Although Walkers have committed to making their crisp packets 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025, it is unfortunate that this was announced right after being called out for “not taking responsibility for the astounding amount of environmentally damaging plastic waste” (this accusation occurred after a study came out revealing that 7,000 non-recyclable crisp packets were being produced every minute), as well as after receiving intense pressure from hundreds of activists who grabbed headlines by posting their packets back to Walkers. In 2018, they joined the UK Plastics Pact, an organisation that aims to transform the plastic packaging system. The concerning thing here is that PepsiCo’s sustainability initiative may be just a cover for their lack of ambition or care for the environment. However, no matter what is currently driving their motivation to be greener, they are at least taking larger and more immediate strides towards a greener planet.
To have a stronger vision of what expectations we should place on these large multinational corporations when it comes to sustainability, we can look at this quote from Carole Ferguson, head of Investor Research at CDP. “As consumer-facing brands, at risk not just from climate change but water scarcity and deforestation too, these companies have a unique role to play in driving forward the sustainable economic transition, ongoing activism around plastics and packaging is just the tip of the iceberg, and we expect to see more environmental issues come to the fore as consumers start to question what goes into the products they buy, use and dispose of. Leading companies are taking action across their entire value chain and redefining the role of business in society – by engaging with suppliers, innovating their product lines and even working with consumers to drive behavior change. These efforts need to be replicated by others in the sector, if they are to justify their role in a society that can no longer be based on fast-paced, rising consumption and linear business models.”. I personally think this is a great quote that summarizes so much of what companies and consumers should be thinking about regarding sustainability, and hopefully these values will carry deeper into society and form the basis for what standards brands are expected to uphold to as second nature.
Despite these concerns of greenwashing acting in ways to “save their faces” in the public’s eyes, it is clear that PepsiCo have comprehensive and ambitious targets. Here are a just a couple of highlights: sustainable sourcing for 100% key ingredients (including crops from third parties, such as vegetable oils and grains), fundamentally change the way consumers interact with their packaging to deliver their vision of a world where plastics never become waste (design 100% packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025), achieve “best-in-class” or “world-class” water-use efficiency at all company-owned and third-party manufacturing facilities by 2030, reduce absolute GHG emissions across PepsiCo’s value chain by 40% by 2030, and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 (one decade earlier than called for in the Paris Agreement)!!
It is nice to be able to point out that they are also actively promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace by addressing human rights issues (i.e., Freedom of Association, Human Right to Water, Land Rights, Vulnerable Worker Groups, Working Hours and Wages, and Workplace Safety), and they are extending the principles of their Supplier Code of Conduct to all of their franchisees and joint ventures by 2025. PepsiCo will also invest $100 million by 2025 to provide 12.5 million women with essential resources for workforce readiness and in programmes that empower women in the food system and farming with the goal of supporting women’s economic advancement.