Ocean Rescue: How Sky’s plastics campaign has ignited a wave of transformation

EXCLUSIVE: Two years on from the launch of its global campaign to educate and inspire the public and businesses to phase-out single-use plastics, Sky's head of Sky Ocean Rescue Fiona Ball sits down with edie to discuss the transformational impacts the project has had both inside and outside of the company.

Ocean Rescue: How Sky’s plastics campaign has ignited a wave of transformation

More than 33.5 million people have interacted with Sky Ocean Rescue across the broadcaster's core markets

This interview is part of edie’s new Mission Possible Plastics Hub, which equips sustainability and resource efficiency professionals with the insight, inspiration and innovations they need to tackle plastics pollution. View more content from the Hub here.

In January 2017, broadcasting giant Sky launched the Ocean Rescue digital campaign with the overarching aim of increasing awareness of the “major challenge” of plastic waste in the oceans. Through celebrity endorsements, promotions at sports events, expert tips from an array of industry experts, and an exclusive 45-minute TV documentary of its own, Sky began to uncover the shocking impacts of plastic pollution around the world.

Pre-dating the so-called “Blue Planet 2 effect” driven by rival broadcaster the BBC, Sky’s campaign was built on a clear understanding of the need to bring other people and businesses on a sustainability journey; to avert and reverse the alarming trend that between eight and 12 million tonnes of plastic are believed to seep into the oceans each year. But interestingly, the project was not confined to Sky’s sustainability team.  

“We set out very clearly from the start that Sky Ocean Rescue was never going to be a CSR programme to us,” Sky’s head of inspirational business & Sky Ocean Rescue, Fiona Ball, tells edie. “It was never going to be something just housed in the sustainability department at Sky… It would never be big enough and wouldn’t get the reach we wanted. We really wanted to change things up and change the plastics system.”

Finding the winning formula

The impact of the Sky Ocean Rescue programme can’t be understated. Starting from the top – with chief executive Jeremy Darroch’s notion that the company needed to “raise awareness about ocean health and encourage the public to remove single-use plastic from their lives” – the campaign has filtrated throughout the business; driving change internally, across the supply chain and among consumers.

The campaign’s engagement stats are remarkable: more than 33.5 million people have so far interacted with Sky Ocean Rescue across its core markets, with more than a million people engaging with Sky’s #PassOnPlastic campaign on Twitter. In fact, Sky’s relentless campaigning on the health of the oceans recently led to more than 220 MPs and MEP’s signing up to that campaign and committing to change their own behaviour and consumption of single-use plastics.

The broadcaster has also used its influence in the sporting world to drive the agenda to a market that is considered hard-to-reach for topics like environmental stewardship. By partnering with the Kia Oval cricket stadium, Sky was able to hand out 20,000 limited-edition re-usable bottles during the England cricket team’s match against South Africa in July 2017. Elsewhere, Sky worked with the Premier League to commit to eliminating single-use plastics from the organisation by 2020, whilst encouraging football clubs and fans across the country to stop using certain plastics.

For Ball and her team, the vast reach of the campaign to date has created a “winning formula” for Sky to not only reduce its plastics footprint, but ignite a wider debate on the issue.

“Every person within the business was looking at what part they could play within their area of influence to make people step back and think about the plastics issue we are all facing,” Ball says. “I knew that we had a winning formula.

“The sporting partnerships have really helped reach a particularly tricky audience, but we’re inspiring others to take action, including businesses and policymakers. It’s more than just raising awareness, its encouraging target-setting and acting now.”

Plastic pledges

Shortly after announcing the new partnerships in the sporting sphere, Sky attended the EU’s Our Ocean Conference to announce a new commitment of its own – one which would transform the business. The broadcaster announced that all single-use plastics will be removed from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020 and that it will also invest £25m into an Ocean Rescue Innovation Fund to develop remedies to the amount of waste seeping into oceans.

The first step under this new pledge was to remove disposable plastic water bottles and provide staff with a refillable alternative. As a result, Sky saved approximately 500,000 plastic bottles in a year. In fact, Sky saved around 175 tonnes of single-use plastic in 2018 alone, equivalent to 19 rubbish trucks full.

Changes were issued on TV sets such as Sky One’s A League of Their Own, along with live sporting broadcasts, to remove single-use bottles. Plastic cutlery and polystyrene were also removed from broadcasts, while thousands of wet wipes were replaced as part of make-up procedures before shows.

“When we launched the goals, we had no idea how we were going to get there for 2020,” Ball adds. “Or for the end of the year. “We’re continuously pressing and setting ourselves ambitious and transformational targets that make us look at how we do business very differently and disrupt our normal business models.”

Ball’s notion that plastics aren’t just tied to one department is apparent in the company’s impact report (released in late 2018) which involves further powerful quotes from CEO Darroch. That report also links the campaigns to wider societal concerns – notably the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 14 – Life Below Water.

Supplier engagement

Considering Ball wasn’t sure how Sky would reach the new targets, progress was still incredibly swift. Eight weeks after the new goals were announced, Sky launched its first new single-use, plastic-free product. The Sky Soundbox was soon followed by other Sky and Now TV products, all of which are housed in plastic-free packaging. Currently, all new products have single-use plastic-free packaging.

Not only do these products benefit the plastic footprint of consumers, but they also created new conversations between Sky and its supply chain.

“We realised quite late in the day that the Soundbox had a polystyrene box and packaging and we had to make significant changes before launch to completely redesign it to make it single-use-plastic-free,” Ball adds.

“A big part of our commitment enters the logistics and extended supply chain. Conversations with other businesses and suppliers have been optimistic as to how we can tackle this issue. Suppliers are [reducing plastics] in their own operations too. They’ve seen such a benefit in addressing it in our services that they’ve made commitments to follow through as well.”

Sky’s logistics partner Unipart is a case in point, having agreed to join the broadcaster’s plastics cause and being able to reduce around 80 tonnes of single-use plastic from its operations by May 2018. Much of Unipart’s progress was driven by packaging innovations and Sky is keen to unlock routes to market for plastic alternatives.

In March 2018, Sky announced a £25m “anchor commitment” and the launch of Sky Ocean Ventures. This impact investment fund aims to foster innovation by investing in entrepreneurs and start-ups that can showcase scalable alternatives. Already, Sky Ocean Ventures has back two solutions: Skipping Rocks Labs has made strides with numerous companies for its “Ooho” 100% naturally biodegradable membranes for liquids and is now backed by the investment fund; while Choose Water has also been backed, to help develop a prototype of a water bottle made from 100% bio-degradable and bio-compostable natural materials.

“Suppliers are long-term relationships that have allowed us to build a level of trust and understanding and shared vision and ownership,” Ball adds. “This has helped dramatically and its really important to collaborate together.”

Next steps

Sky is not alone with this vision. New plastics commitments from corporates are arriving continuously and in high volumes (check out edie’s Plastics Hub for the latest). While such commitments are of course very welcome, there are still lots of lessons to be learnt by the big corporates in this area, and that includes Sky. The broadcaster commissioned experts from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) to conduct an in-depth review of its progress and what has worked.

The CISL review outlines how a “top-down” approach to leadership has been essential in driving change and that Sky has succeeded by placing the campaign “front and centre” of the business strategy in a way that “filters all the way through” to the entire workforce.

Looking ahead, Sky is hoping to build on its progress to date and share its learnings with the wider industry. The broadcaster is still struggling to reduce or replace items such as shrink wrap, but is still forging ahead at pace.

“Looking and thinking differently has been really beneficial for us and we want to make this open-source,” Ball adds. “We knew we had something right when we started the programme and it’s great to see it happening and businesses all making their commitments now.

“We could possibly, for the first time, change an environmental system for good and learn things to tackle other big issues.”

Hear more from Sky in edie’s single-use plastics webinar

Sky’s Fiona Ball will be appearing alongside speakers from Cranswick and A Plastic Planet for a special webinar on how to lead a business transformation on plastics.

Taking place on Thursday 17 January at 2pm, the session will combine best-practice case studies with expert insights to give you a clear way forward in your organisation’s approach to plastics. 


Matt Mace

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