From water bottles to clamshell containers to grocery bags, plastic pervades Americans’ everyday lives… and sea turtles’ stomachs. Nearly 8 million metric tons of plastic invade marine ecosystems annually, and if we keep up unchecked production and poor disposal, there will be more plastic than fish in Earth’s oceans by 2050.
Our friends at As You Sow are working to change that.
In June, the shareholder advocacy group launched the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance in an effort to cut down corporate plastic pollution. This international community of investors seeks to spark a meaningful dialogue with publicly-traded companies on the threats posed by plastic waste. Together, these investors with $1 trillion in combined assets under management are committed to finding sustainable solutions for leading companies.
Unpacking a “Clear Corporate Brand Risk”
When it comes to marketing, an item’s packaging says a lot about its brand. Presentation differentiates your product from the competition, bolsters brand recognition, and makes shopping a memorable experience. After all, what would Tiffany’s be without its little blue box? Coca-Cola cans without their vibrant red hue? Packaging has become an essential channel for companies to communicate and connect with their customers.
Yet, packaging poses a unique threat. With only 14% of plastic packaging being recycled, current single-use packaging designs are expected to go straight from the supermarket to the landfill. When this waste doesn’t make it to the landfill, it often slips its way into the seas. In fact, nine of the top ten items retrieved from the Ocean Conservancy during its annual coastal cleanups are some form of single-use packaging.
That’s why the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance is ready to green up packaging. As of June 13, 2018, its first twenty-five members have signed the Investor Declaration on Plastic Pollution proclaiming that plastic pollution carries a “clear corporate brand risk.” With this mentality, the group will approach four consumer goods giants -- Nestle, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Unilever -- to redesign and commit to recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging.
But how exactly does the deployment of cheap plastic packaging, widely believed to be a key brand booster, risk financial repercussions?
Plastic pollution threatens marine life.
A 2002 study identified plastic debris as a direct peril to marine animals, identifying plastic packaging entanglement and ingestion as two chief dangers. Entanglement by plastic litter is a particular problem for playful, curious marine mammals. Once entangled, their survival is greatly jeopardized. Animals may drown, make easier targets for predators, become unable to hunt, or suffer severe cuts and wounds likely to develop infections. Young mammals, like seal pups, who manage to get their necks through plastic loops begin to outgrow their unnatural collars and are eventually strangled to death.
Ingesting plastics similarly impairs marine life. Seabirds, turtles, whales, and fish will often mistake litter like plastic bags for food, which can then disrupt digestive systems, tear stomach linings, and reduce stomach space. As a result, animals starve to death, as their digestive tracts cannot process real food and their stomachs cannot store anything else.
The impact of plastic ingestion can reverberate throughout entire ocean ecosystems. Moving along natural water flows or in animals’ stomachs, plastics can absorb and introduce toxins to other ocean communities. This contamination can spread throughout food webs as infected animals are hunted. Further, a 2017 report speculates that these toxins eventually find their way to our dinner plates too.
When all said and done, the UN Environmental Programme estimates that plastic consumer goods cause about $75 billion worth of direct environmental damage annually.
Your corporate reputation is at risk.
Consumers are becoming progressively more environmentally and socially-conscious. A 2013 report on consumer trends revealed that 55% of consumers are actively seeking to support green products, 82% are more likely to buy products that represent corporate social responsibility over those that do not, and 75% are more likely to buy from companies that prioritize sustainability. Another study found that 75% of millennial respondents were willing to pay extra for sustainable products and services, dubbing millennials as the “Green Generation.” Now, corporate sustainability initiatives are not only measures to help the planet, but market survival strategies.
Earlier this month, brand audits conducted by more than a dozen environmental groups in three countries slammed several global manufacturing giants for unchecked plastic use. Results pointed to PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestle, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola as amongst the companies most responsible for plastic pollution in India, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
These findings were made public at the Global Sustainable Brands Summit where representatives of these multinational brands were present. While mainstream corporate narratives have blamed consumer habits and inadequate waste management, these results revealed corporate stubbornness and carelessness, pointing towards weak commitments and a refusal to take responsibility.
In its declaration, As You Sow has identified several ways for companies to address plastic waste. You can follow suit.
Re-design your plastic packaging to be recyclable, reusable, or compostable, or look for alternatives. While a cup or straw may be used just once, plastic pollution can persist in our oceans for centuries. Looking for ways that your plastic packaging can be recycled and reused or transitioning to greener alternatives can relieve our oceans of further damage.
Track annual plastic packaging use and set reduction goals. Too often, plastic waste is little more than an afterthought. Monitoring your company’s footprint is a great way to ensure that plastic waste reduction remains a priority, and understanding the sources of your company’s waste is crucial to setting goals that are realistic and effective.
Use your business voice to support public policy initiatives that call for plastic waste reduction. Your influence can help your customers and local governments become more aware of plastic pollution issues. Your platform can also help establish a precedent for businesses to take accountability for their plastic use.
Here at the Green Business Network, we are proud to represent a community committed to corporate environmental and social responsibility. As shareholders, business leaders, and consumers, we must come together to find solutions to plastic waste that help profits, people, and the planet.