Plastics and the wider sustainability narrative

One year on from Blue Planet 2, shocked by apocalyptic imagery and endless reporting, the world has woken up to the horrors of plastic pollution. Businesses and Government are queuing up to announce measures to tackle the problem. The action taken should be applauded, but has the drive against single-use plastic diverted us from the bigger problems causing our environment crisis? Is it time for businesses to stand up against oversimplified reporting on plastics?

In an event chaired by Golin’s Head of Corporate Strategy Nick Bishop, we put these issues to an expert sustainability and communications panel made up of Clara Biu (Head of PR at Just Eat), Gavin Warner (Head of Sustainable Business at Unilever) and Victoria Brophy (Executive Director at Golin).

Here are our top four takeaways.

1 PLASTICS ARE THE CATALYST FOR A SUSTAINABILITY CONVERSATION

Gavin Warner started the debate by stating that the focus on plastics is a great way to spark noise for other topical debates. Plastic use is an issue that needs resolving urgently and this amount of noise can help force change. However, Gavin conceded that, “The truth is, the banning of plastics entirely is very impractical for many companies, however reducing plastic use initially is at least taking a step in the right direction from a business perspective.”

Clara Biu agreed, “The plastics debate is a catalyst for other things. Once you start talking about plastics you get permission to have other sustainability conversations.” Just Eat has recently launched a section on their app that allows customers to pick an option to have no single-use plastics included in their takeaway order. This initiative helps consumers take the right steps when it comes to recycling.

“A business has a role to educate the consumer on plastics or packaging in the context of the product it provides,” said Clara. In Just Eats’ case, they have a responsibility to educate the restaurants their app provides, not only on plastics but also on issues such food waste and other environmental concerns.

2 SIMPLE SOLUTIONS ARE POWERFUL BUT PROBLEMATIC

While bold, simplistic anti-plastic campaigns can be affective at raising the profile of the issue; our panel also recognized the problems behind such campaigns. Iceland supermarket’s recent ad and decision to ban palm oil from their own brand products by the end of 2018 bore many similarities to the recent plastics debate. While Iceland is trying to focus on a major environmental issue, the panel felt the campaign oversimplified the issue.

Clara explained that the ad created a dangerous statement around a complex issue. While the campaign rightly raises awareness of the palm oil issue, in much the same was as Blue Planet did for plastics, it does not educate the audience or explain the reasoning. While it is easy to see the appeal of the PR stunt, from a comms perspective she felt it was risky.

Gavin agreed, he said campaigns that “Aim to gain favour without substance,” can be problematic when they lack the support of a strategy. Victoria added that the average Iceland consumer probably does not have any knowledge on the palm oil debate, so cannot truly understand the depth and years to grasp.

3 BE BOLD TO DRIVE CHANGE

While simplistic plastics reporting is not ideal for educating the public, our debate highlighted the importance of being bold and challenging current systems in order for change to begin.

Gavin used the example of compostable/biodegradable plastics, which have currently gained mixed views as to whether this is the right step for the plastics debate. However if a business makes the move to implement this change and take a new approach to the plastics issue, it puts pressure on other competitors to do the same – which can only be a good thing if it reduces a serious environmental problem.

Through this lens, the Iceland palm oil campaign could be perceived as a bold approach to solve a serious issue, which may bring about positive change to other supermarkets.

4 FOLLOW THE LEADERS IN THIS FIELD

Our panelists referenced many brands doing great work in this area such as Stella McCartney, sourcing as many sustainable materials as possible and trying to stop clothes going into waste. Vic Brophy mentioned Quorn – the meat substitute product – that aims to be truly sustainable from their packaging to their product. Gavin highlighted Patagonia as the pinnacle of a brand that believes in true environmental and social responsibility.

Victoria Brophy raised the issue of “engaging the consumer to change behaviour in the long term.” She highlighted that under 35’s are the most vocal consumers due to the social platforms they use to give brands feedback. However, this age group is probably the highest consumer of pre-prepared, packaged food and fast fashion. “The challenge is to make plastics and sustainability communications far more educational for consumers,” she said.

CONCLUSION

Tackling sustainability is never going to be easy; undeniably, businesses must be forward thinking in order to help resolve a major environmental issue such as plastic pollution. From bold, simplistic campaigns to sustainable leaders driving change in their fields, the rise in plastics awareness will most certainly be the catalyst for more sustainable progress to come. However, the goal has to be to engage authentically within the context of your brand, while looking to educate consumers in a way that will drive positive change.