We Are the Oceans: a new way to educate consumers on plastic waste

As sustainability practitioners search for new ways to drive consumer engagement, edie's Matt Mace hears from the 23-year-old founder of a new campaign group which is utilising music, video games and social media campaigns to capture the hearts and minds of millennials in tackling the issue of ocean plastic waste.

In 1984, Bob Geldof’s Band Aid sought to “feed the world” in response to Ethiopian famine. Today,  a number of global artists and top-tier influencers are forming a digital live aid collective; recording their own versions of a song which raises awareness of overfishing, marine pollution and climate change.

“Can’t you hear the ocean cry… calling out to be revived… take a stand,” go the lyrics of the song. “We all need to make a plan… reverse effects of common man… open your eyes.”

Soul singer Joss Stone has been first to record a version of the song, which will be released on 14 July. Numerous other artists and bands are expected to follow suit, recording live versions of the song which will be shared to millions of followers across various social media channels.

This is the collaborative work of We Are The Oceans (WATO), a global not-for-profit collective set up to help safeguard the future of our planet by protecting the world’s oceans.

The immediate success of WATO in recruting a number of big-name musicians to help spread its message is made all the more notable by the fact that the organisation was set up just eight months ago, and all the more remarkable by the fact that it was founded by a 23-year-old.

London-based Daisy Kendrick decided to launch WATO after working with the UN on a mission to enhance the sustainable development of the Caribbean nation of Grenada – it was this first-hand experience that made Kendrick realise saw just how interlinked the world’s oceans are to civilisation, and how pollution is threatening that co-existence. So she decided to lead change.  

“I learnt about the oceans from these meetings at a time where I didn’t know much about it,” Kendrick tells edie on the phone from her US office. “My friends didn’t know about it… how is this possible when the oceans integrate with every aspect of our life?

“Oceans are worth $2.4trn and there is no harm in businesses trying to make money from being sustainable in this area. I looked at it from a different angle and what can be done to raise engagement. The first idea was music, and how we can interrelate that with what we wanted to do.”

WATO has partnered with the Vans Warped Tour – the largest traveling music festival in the US – taking its original song to an even bigger audience. More than 500,000 people will be attending the Vans Warped Tour this summer and the bands involved will also help to spread the message of tackling oceans plastics on social media.

But this is just one part of the engagement puzzle and, as Kendrick noted in a recent article for the Guardian, Facebook and Twitter posts can be “scrolled past, filtered out, buried on a newsfeed, or missed altogether”. So, to spread the message further, WATO has turned to another market: the video games industry, which generated more than $91bn worldwide in 2016.

The Big Catch

Gamification – the concept of using a game or fun activity to educate and engage people in areas outside of their usual interests – has already been successfully incorporated into the fitness industry and is now making steady progress in the realm of sustainability. Last year, for example, Dutch brewer Heineken broadcast key messages and milestones from its sustainability strategy in a “more engaging form”, through a game which requires users to navigate a variety of levels.

Kendrick’s WATO is following suit, having partnered with Rovio – creator of the most downloaded game franchises in history, Angry Birds – for the Big Catch game, which launched in April. The game sees players navigate plastic-filled oceans, learning key facts along the way. In less than a month, more than three million players had interacted with the game, while more than seven million people were reached through social media.

“There is an huge existing gaming audience with a lot of potential,” Kendrick says of her decision to take the gamification route. “Every day, mobile gamers are playing online but aren’t interacting with philanthropy or the oceans – businesses needed to discover how to reach this audience on their terms. A lot of games have millions of people on their platforms, and they can use the power of advertisement and media in implementing a message or a game. People are being educated on a gaming site to become a reusable society.”

And the fun doesn’t stop there. Earlier this month, WATO used the same mobile game platform to launch Island Nation Defence, which tasks players with managing an island’s scarce resources to reduce CO2 levels and defend it from rising sea levels. Alongside some shocking facts from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – such as plastic outnumbering fish by 2050 if the world fails to act on the issue – the game provides players with information and insight surrounding the issue – for example, one billion people rely on fish as their main source of protein and 40% of the world’s population live within 100km of the coastline. 

Island Nation Defence has already caught the interest of numerous island nations, many of which want to use the game as part of e-learning curriculums.

Both of WATO’s games have helped players collect one million tonnes of ‘virtual’ plastic. The charity is now hoping to match that with an equivalent real-life collection. But the games are having a much deeper effect; fuelling a desire for change amongst the public on the use of plastic, which is in turn increasing the pressure on brands to act and collaborate on the issue.

WATO’s cross-channel approach is mirrored by cross-sector action. As well as working with technology companies – Kendrick is hoping to use blockchain next year to create supply chains that are “completely transparent” – WATO is working closely with the fashion industry to strengthen its message.

The organisation partnered with H&M and model Natalia Vodianova in February to showcase the “bionic” line from the fashion brand, which included a dress made from recycled polyester derived from plastic waste found across shorelines.

So, Kendrick has pooled resources and opened dialogues with the gaming, technology and fashion sectors to raise awareness of the issue. But now it’s time for businesses to act, and work together to re-think packaging systems in order to eliminate the problem.

“Collaboration is key and as a new organisation we want to work with others,” Kendrick says. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but others aren’t reaching millennials in an appropriate way.

“From a brand perspective, they can use these mediums to spread what they are doing, but it’s time for action and solutions. Until we find alternatives to the material, we won’t generate the desired results. We need sustainable outcomes in our supply chain. Until we use the circular economy in these chains, it won’t become the norm to purchase the resource-efficient products that some brands are offering – these products need to be the norm rather than a specialist selection.”

Whilst there is still a long way to go to transition to a ‘New Plastics Economy‘, WATO provides a compelling example of the positive momentum that can be achieved through engaging younger generations on the issue. Indeed, companies like BT, H&M and Heineken have already incorporated music into their sustainability campaigns to appeal to new audiences, and with good reason – younger people are seemingly more likely to buy into more sustainable business models such as servitisation, and are more likely to engage with companies that have a sustainability-orientated brand purpose.

Looking ahead, Kendrick is optimistic that other businesses will follow suit as we reach an important tipping point in awareness of the issue. 

“People are increasingly realising that if there’s no oceans, there’s no life,” Kendrick concludes. “The oceans have become the crisis of this generation. We recognise that one solution doesn’t fit all people and so we have been approaching audiences which don’t usually interact with the topic of ocean plastics – and we have seen some success.

“If people are educated on this issue, they will start to think about the alternatives to plastic waste, and will favour more sustainable business models so that we can live in a more sustainable society.” 

Matt Mace & Luke Nicholls

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