Digital Marketing Redux   //   April 25, 2023

Why Rothy’s is trying to help to pass a statewide recycling bill

Sustainable shoe and bag company Rothy’s has transformed hundreds of thousands of pounds of ocean-bound plastic into new products. Now, it’s wading into advocacy to back an update to a New York bill about bottle recycling and redemption.

Since 1982, New York state residents have paid a five-cent deposit when buying a bottle or can, which they can get back when recycling that container at a redemption center. The bill, if passed, would increase that amount to 10 cents and expand the policy to include wine and liquor bottles. Advocates of the bill — which is being dubbed the “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill” — say it will incentivize more people to recycle, keeping millions of bottles out of landfills.

Last week, Rothy’s launched a campaign to spread the word about the bill (it was slated to be voted on this week, but may end up being pushed back). To champion the cause, Rothy’s took out a full-page print ad in the New York Times, updated window designs at three stores and held events with advocates and community members. It also organized phone banks and pushed the bill on social media with messages like “Stop Recycling Like It’s 1982” and “Give a Dime About Plastic.” Rothy’s is working closely with the New York Public Interest Research Group and the nonprofit center Sure We Can on the initiative.

While Rothy’s has not advocated for legislation before, it felt that the “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill” aligned with its existing mission to give plastic another life, Chief Marketing Officer Jamie Gersch told Modern Retail.

“What we want is awareness of the ‘Bigger, Better Bottle Bill,’ but most importantly, that there’s a value in plastic,” Gersch said. “What has been amazing about Rothy’s is Rothy’s has never said that they had all the solutions on how to solve the plastic problem. No one does, obviously. But until there are better solutions, we want people to recognize that there is a better way.”

Rothy’s does not currently have plans to transform the bottles collected in New York into product, a company spokesperson told Modern Retail. “At this time, our primary focus is to get this legislation passed to keep plastic from ending up in landfills,” they said.

Rothy’s first got involved with the “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill” in January, Gersch said, after connecting with Sure We Can, a recycling center and community organization based in Brooklyn that supports informal recyclers, or individuals who make a living collecting and redeeming recyclables. Sure We Can has a network of more than 700 recyclers who collected 11 million bottles and cans last year.

“As we started digging deeper and deeper, we learned that… their main source of income hasn’t changed in 40 years, because the bottle bill has not been updated since 1982,” Gersch said. “We fell in love with this community… and when we started to say, ‘Well, how can we help you?’ we started learning more about the ‘Bigger, Better Bottle Bill.'”

Besides working with Sure We Can to advocate for the bill, Rothy’s has donated an electric vehicle to the organization to provide transportation around the city.

More retailers, especially DTC brands, are putting sustainability at the heart of their product and marketing strategies. Blueland, for example, bases its business around refillable containers, while Bite creates toothpaste tablets that are an alternative to plastic toothpaste tubes. Many apparel businesses have gotten involved in resale, and in 2020, 47 companies signed an open letter supporting the U.S.’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst for retail and e-commerce at Insider Intelligence, told Modern Retail that Rothy’s has a “level of authenticity” that’s helped it combat an industry-wide slowdown in e-commerce. Right now, “there’s difficulty for a lot of DTC brands to break through,” he said, and doing something like backing the updated bottle bill is “very consistent” with the Rothy’s brand.

“If the average consumer may be a little bit skeptical about brands who talk the talk on sustainability efforts, walking the walk is a way to burnish your brand and credentials and authenticity,” Lipsman said. “And this is a very tangible, real life situation that matters. So I do think that it helps break through with consumers and also can help create that affinity.”

These tangible efforts can also boost a company’s business because they may lead to earned media, Lipsman pointed out. “At a time when customer acquisition costs have become really prohibitive for a lot of digitally-native brands, this is a way to reengage lapsed customers or grow the brand and win new customers,” he said.

Gersch said Rothy’s cannot disclose whether it’s seen an increase in foot traffic, web visits or sales since launching the campaign. However, she said, many event attendees aren’t previous Rothy’s customers, and store visitors often ask about the campaign.

The key with advocacy is “consistency,” Calla Murphy, vp of digital strategy & integrated marketing at Belardi Wong, told Modern Retail. “It cannot be a one-time thing.” Murphy named Patagonia as an example of a company that makes advocacy “a core part” of its business model. “That helps validate that it’s not simply a marketing ploy,” she said.

Rothy’s hopes other companies will join it in supporting the bill. In terms of future advocacy, “We will continue to make sure we’re involved in the causes that relate to the brand,” Gersch said. “We’ll see what works, what doesn’t and what’s most helpful for both consumers and legislations to move this forward. So, more to come.”