The Big Business Plastics Debate (Part Two): How can we create a ‘ripple effect’ of change?
In the second of our two-part feature from the Big Plastics Debate at edie Live 2019, we move the conversation on to explore how businesses and policymakers can harness the momentum of environmental campaigns and protests to drive a new 'social norm' around plastics.
As the first part of this feature concluded, the global shift away from single-use plastics is already beginning to have an undeniable impact on society. Plastic straws, stirrers, cotton buds, cups, bags and bottles are all on the way out, offering a glimpse at how our current linear economy is shifting to a closed-loop, resource-efficient model. Workplaces are being transformed into ‘single-use-plastic-free’ spaces, driven by staff understanding the simple steps that they can make as individuals to reduce their plastics impact.
The Bank of England is a prime example. The organisation’s head of corporate sustainability and responsibility Charles Joly has witnessed an internal change that has seen an 80% reduction in plastic item use, a difference of around two million items annually. More than 500,000 plastic coffee cups have been replaced at water fountains and internal “Green Champions” now challenge colleagues to swap out disposable items.
For Joly, a key way for any business to reduce its reliance on plastics is to integrate that view as part of a way of life for staff.
“Viewing plastics differently is now integrated into our culture,” Joly explained. “People were bringing disposable cups and bottles to meetings. Now, we can put 15 people around the table and instantly see that re-use has become the new norm in the business… advocates are waking up and taking ownership across different areas of the business. Integration is the Holy Grail.”
To achieve this Holy Grail, Joly believes communication is a vital way of “getting people used to the new world” to “open a new train of thought about new areas of resource efficiency”.
Turning from the world of banking to telecoms, Sky has emerged as one of the leaders when it comes to inspiring widescale change regarding resource efficiency, both across its supply chain and amongst the wider public.
The Sky Ocean Rescue campaign’s engagement stats are nothing short of 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. 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. 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.
For Sky’s head of inspirational business and Sky Ocean Rescue, Fiona Ball, businesses should look to create a “ripple effect” by engaging other companies and consumers on plastics in a way that could eventually shift entire markets away from single-use.
“The greatest opportunity that business has is to see who else you can engage around this particular issue,” Ball said. “Take responsibility for the products you put out on the market, only in that way you will have a ‘circular economy’ approach to market products. It’s a reputational issue as well to continue doing something we know is irresponsible, so from a brand-value perception, things should start changing as well.”
“The greatest opportunity for business is to see who else they can engage” @SkyOceanRescue @FiFiball sets the tone at the circular economy theatre at @edielive to #passonplastic pic.twitter.com/L5vO0mdbXL
— edie.net (@edie) May 21, 2019
Whether the plastics debate can be used as a gateway to improve understanding on other sustainability issues is another discussion entirely (incidentally, ZSL’s Fiona Llewellyn and Waitrose’s Tor Harris from the first part of this discussion believe it can act as one). But it does appear that we’re entering an era where a single lightning rod moment can spark global change.
Environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage’s chief executive Hugo Tagholm noted that the Blue Planet series that ignited the current wave of action on plastics dedicated just 14 minutes of airtime to plastics pollution. In a similar fashion, it took just one speech from a 16-year old schoolchild to kickstart the ongoing wave of climate youth strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, which have opened eyes on the wider climate battle. The climate strikes have echoed across Parliament halls and it looks increasingly likely that the UK will enshrine a net-zero carbon target into law in the near future.
Tagholm is a firm believer that policymakers must also drive change to combat plastics pollution and push the nation towards a closed-loop economy.
“It took 14 minutes to change how industry considers its approach to plastics, how government is legislating and how NGOs and broadcasters have responded to the plastic crisis,” Tagholm said. “The plastic crisis is now, the plastic emergency is now, and we need radical solutions within the established business community.
“Change often relies on Westminster – it’s the place where legislation can incentivise and penalise industry for doing the right or the wrong thing. People need a new plastic eco-system where plastic is trapped in the economy rather than the environment.”
Carrot and stick
Indeed, speakers from across both of our Big Plastics Debate sessions highlighted the importance of legislation in order to set the precedent on how business and society should consume plastics. A deposit-return scheme for plastic bottles, for example, could reduce one-third of UK plastic seeping into the oceans, according to the think tank Green Alliance.
Bank of England’s Joly claimed that any new way of consuming or disposing of plastic will come with a “grief period” but the business and policymakers alike can bridge these issues through clear communication. BaxterStorey’s Hanson, meanwhile, reiterated that legislation is required to spur action, especially in sectors where action is too slow.
“We need legislation and you need the carrot and the stick,” Hanson said. “The stick is generally more effective.”
For ZSL’s Llewellyn, the end goal for an organisation should be to create an environment where a resource efficient economy is the “new norm”, to the point that people won’t be fatigued by the conversation on plastics, especially regarding the trade-offs and uses. “I think success would look like all of us not having to talk about this,” Llewellyn said. “It is fundamentally about changing our relationship with plastic and creating a new norm where we don’t abuse it and that it becomes so ingrained that it would be ludicrous to throwaway such value.
“If we achieve our goals of moving towards a new social norm, then people won’t be fatigued by the conversation or the issue and we can address other big issues. It doesn’t have to be in silo, and we need to make it easier for people to achieve these changes.”