SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS: CAN PLASTIC PLEDGES MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
A future powered entirely by green energy would mean little if the way we lived continued to be unsustainable in other ways. That's why, on Sustainable Energy Day, our Futures Stage will hear from a company at the vanguard of a movement to end needless use of plastic.
In 20 years’ time, will we look back at the winter of 2018 as a watershed moment in the sustainability movement?
It was in January of this year that Iceland, the frozen foods chain, committed to eliminating plastic packaging from own-brand products within five years.
It was a bold statement.
“The world has woken up to the scourge of plastics,” its managing director Richard Walker declared. Would this small but important step by one retailer lead to a giant leap for humankind?
Fast forward a few months and the plight of a pilot whale, which died on a Thai beach having swallowed 80 plastic bags, seemed to symbolise the enormity of a problem caused by an estimated 10m tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans every year.
But the pledge did seem to get through to a public that – advance surveys had suggested - would overwhelmingly support the move.
“We’d been working on it for a couple of years,” says Iceland’s head of sustainability Hil Berg. “And as we were planning the announcement Blue Planet was on and it really captured the public imagination even more than it would have done.”
The final episode in the BBC series showed albatross parents unwittingly feeding plastic to their chicks and a turtle trapped in a plastic sack, shocking the viewing public. It was broadcast a month before Iceland announced its pledge.
Since then, says Berg: “We have had international interest from students, academics, businesses and NGOs, calls from schools and hospitals asking us to help them reduce plastic, and thousands of messages of support from the public.”
Small businesses took note; many bars, for instance, stopped serving up drinks with plastic straws. Three weeks after Iceland’s announcement, Asda committed to making own-brand packaging recyclable by 2025. Waitrose followed suit.
Then came the UK Plastics Pact, with companies responsible for more than 80% of plastic packaging on products sold through UK supermarkets – including M&S and Proctor & Gamble – committing to make 100% of plastic packaging ready for recycling or composting by 2025.
On a wider scale, the UN has reported that more than 50 countries are taking action, including India which has pledged to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022.
That initial pledge meant great publicity for Iceland, being covered by news outlets around the world, and it might well help its coffers. In a survey of 5,000 consumers, 91% said they would be more likely to encourage friends or family to shop in a chain that had taken a plastics-free stance.
But Berg - who will speak at the International Business Festival on June 14 - says the motivation was as much about personality as profit. Walker, the 37-year-old son of Iceland’s founder Sir Malcolm, is a passionate environmentalist and keen surfer. Angered by evidence of 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution per mile of British beach, he decided to take action.
“It’s unusual for someone that age to be in that position but when you drive things at board level it really works,” says Berg. “Millennials can make a huge different because they vote with their wallets. Generation Z, who are 18 this year, are incredibly idealistic and tremendously media-savvy. Any sensible business would take note of that.”
Iceland quickly followed its plastics pledge with a move to stop using palm oil in own-brand products by the end of the year, to combat the vast areas of rainforest cleared to make room for plantations of the cheap, high-yielding crop. It's also trialling the UK's first deposit return scheme for plastic bottles through a reverse vending machine at a store in Fulham.
But Berg says the knock-on effects could have as great an impact as the commitments themselves.
“We’ve had a lot of companies internationally coming to us with all kinds of ideas about how to replace our plastic packaging. There are people making packaging out of all sorts of materials, such as seaweed. They wouldn’t have had the market for their innovations before.”
The shift presents opportunities to those with the right products. The palm oil pledge alone was backed by £5m investment in alternative products.
“This isn’t just a large PR exercise. There’s going to be a lot of investment in switching product lines,” adds Berg.
* Disrupt For a Cleaner, Greener World - Futures Stage, June 14. Hil Berg will be joined by Iceland's head of sustainable packaging Richard Parker to talk about the effects of making environmental commitments.