A Wake-Up Call for Brands


A Wake-Up Call for Brands

Andrei Dubadzel / iStockphoto

As public pressure for action to protect the environment grows, brands have a large role to play in securing the future of the planet, as Sarah Morgan reports.

If you haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg, where have you been? In August last year, the Swedish schoolgirl stood outside the Swedish Parliament, undertaking a solitary protest called Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for the climate).

She’s now the figurehead of the worldwide school strike for climate movement and a role model for student activism. Her protest comes amid a bleak vision of the future: last year, carbon emissions from fossil-fuel use hit a record high, with energy demand growing at its fastest pace in a decade.

It’s in the context of this desire for change and a growing consensus that everybody, from governments to brands to individuals, needs to act now that is driving save the environment movements in all corners of the world.

“Whatever your career, wherever you are, you can make a difference. To make the world a better place does not take great effort; it simply takes conscious, committed, and consistent effort to do good wherever we can, however we can, and whenever we can,” says Susan Heaney, Director of Marketing and Company Engagement at the Rainforest Alliance (USA), an international non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on climate change, deforestation, and animal and plant extinction, among other issues.

According to a 2018 survey by Nielsen, 81 percent of global respondents of all age groups feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. While the passion for corporate responsibility is driven by millennials, Gen Z, and Gen X, the older generations are not far behind.

“Brands are key to making the world a better place because we live in a society in which brands and consumers are engaged in a cycle of mutual influence,” says Ms. Heaney. “Consumer preferences drive brand attributes, while brand offerings determine consumer options. With the right decisions on both sides of the equation, this can be a virtuous circle.”

More than half (61%) of consumers are likely to switch to a brand that is more environmentally friendly than their current preference, according to a report on sustainable packaging in the United Kingdom and United States, published by GlobalWebIndex earlier this year.

"According to a 2018 survey by Nielsen, 81 percent of global respondents of all age groups feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment."

There’s a stark warning here: do better or lose your customers. However, there’s a caveat. Companies need to take a holistic view across the entire product lifestyle and their business, advises Ms. Heaney.

“A major global tea brand is packaging 100 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified tea in biodegradable and compostable tea bags, bringing product sustainability full circle,” says Ms. Heaney.

Drowning in Plastic

Plastic is not so fantastic, but it is pervasive. You’ll find it in everything from shopping bags to food packaging to cosmetics.

You’ll also find it inside marine wildlife: plastic packaging that blocks the stomachs of whales, straws lodged in sea turtles, and birds choked by plastic waste.

Every year, around eight million metric tons of plastic is thrown into the ocean, according to statistics published in the journal Science in 2015.

Around 30 percent of the plastic ever produced worldwide is still in use, according to the Royal Statistical Society (United Kingdom). Of the remaining amount, estimated at 6,300 million metric tons, 90.5 percent has never been recycled.

But how do we tackle this crisis? Well, it takes everyone doing their part.

In the mainstream consciousness, we see new initiatives aimed at stopping single-use plastics like shopping bags and straws.

GlobalWebIndex’s report found that 42 percent of consumers say products that use sustainable materials are an important consideration for their day-to-day purchases, while 53 percent have reduced the amount of plastic they use in the past 12 months.

Governments are making efforts too. In March, the European Parliament voted to ban single-use plastic cutlery, straws, cotton buds, and stirrers—a prohibition that will come into force by 2021.

And brands are playing a role. In 2017, many of the world’s largest packaging producers, brands, retailers, and recyclers, as well as governments and NGOs—275 in all—signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.

Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (United Kingdom), a charity that was launched in 2010, in collaboration with UN Environment, with the stated aim of accelerating the transition to a circular economy, the commitment aims to create a circular economy for plastic in which it never becomes waste.

In March, four of the signatories, Diageo (United Kingdom), Nestle (Switzerland), The Coca-Cola Company (USA), and Unilever (UK and Netherlands) launched the Africa Plastics Recycling Alliance to tackle the current challenge of plastic waste in Sub Saharan Africa in a way that creates jobs.

Gabriel Opoku-Asare, Head of Society, Africa, Diageo (Ghana), says: “The Alliance is focused on driving progress through existing and new country level partnerships. We knew what we had to do was to revive coalitions, declare plans, and actively engage with NGOs to set and achieve targets.”

The alliance stems from the four multinationals’ work in Ghana, where the recycling industry is in the early stages of development. The Ghana-based pilot project, a facility built out of concrete blocks that are made by mixing mortar with plastics, is nearing completion and is expected to create millions of jobs, according to Mr. Opuku-Asare.

“This is just the beginning of the journey. We’re looking to see how we can really change the face of plastic waste across Africa,” he says.

More Than Packaging

Less talked about, but just as damaging, is the disposal of menstrual products. Last year, the European Commission found that menstrual products are the fifth-most common type of waste washing up on beaches.

Tampons mostly consist of cotton and rayon, but have components made of polyester materials, with many wrapped in plastic applicators. Sanitary pads can be made up of 90 percent plastic.

This is where Wuka (UK), a brand that creates reusable period pants, comes in. Rubina Raut, Chief Executive, founded the company in 2017 through crowd-funding platform Kickstarter (USA), with sustainability at the core of the brand.

“Unfortunately, many people still don’t know about the damage that is being done to the environment when these products are discarded, or they’re reluctant to talk about it. This is coupled with the fact that many women are unaware of alternatives to single-use products,” says Ms. Raut.

She returned to her Nepalese roots earlier this year, when attending a child and adolescent health conference in the country, where she says waste management is still a massive problem.

Ms. Raut adds: “We realized that many girls cannot even afford underwear, let alone menstrual products. In addition to donating over two dozen pairs of WUKA, we’ll also be providing regular underwear to girls and women in remote villages.”

But will more recycling be enough to fix the plastic crisis? Not according to Loop (USA), a recently-launched reusable packaging system founded by waste management company TerraCycle (USA) and several big brands, including Procter & Gamble, Unilever P.L.C., and Nestle.

“Even if 100 percent of the products and packaging we use are recyclable and made from recycled content, is this the best thing we can do for the environment? The answer is no,” says Anthony Rossi, Vice President of Global Business Development at TerraCycle.

Instead of tackling the recycling of single-use products, Loop is attempting to go the root cause of waste: disposability. 

Mr. Rossi adds: “Distilling down to its simplest form, Loop is offering brands the opportunity to move from a linear supply chain to a truly circular one.”

Launched earlier this year in the United States and France, Loop has approximately 250 products on its roster, including Procter & Gamble’s PANTENE shampoo and conditioner and Nestle’s HAAGEN-DAZS ice cream. Once consumers are finished with the product, they send the empty packaging back to Loop. Loop then cleans the packaging and returns it to the manufacturers to be refilled.

Eight of the ten companies Greenpeace lists as the world’s largest contributors to the plastic waste crisis are Loop brand members, and the coalition is in talks with the other two.

It didn’t take much to convince the brands to take part, because “everybody knows this is the direction we should be moving in,” he says. “Making the world a better place means providing a realistic option for consumers to make the world a better place, without them having to sacrifice so much.”

Fashion Trends

Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is put into landfill or burned, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The foundation provides other sobering statistics. An estimated US $500 billion in value is lost every year due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled; and clothes release half a million tons of microfibers into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles.

Few industries encapsulate the growing importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in brand promotion as well as fashion. Sally Britton, Partner and Co-Head of the Retail Group at Mischon de Reya in London (United Kingdom), has extensive experience in the sector. She observes that a few years ago, only a few select fashion brands such as Stella McCartney prioritized CSR.

“Now, however, it pays for all brands to be conscious of how much scrutiny they are under in this respect,” she says.

Frederick Mostert, President of the Luxury Law Alliance (United Kingdom) and a Past President of INTA, is optimistic.

“From my experience of working with brands, I am convinced that initiatives spearheaded by the fashion industry will turn out to be some of the most significant in the discussion on climate change,” he says, citing the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action as a prime example.

Launched last year with the support of the UN Climate Change initiative, the charter brings together fashion brands, retailers, and others in the supply chain to address the industry’s environmental impact and envisions net-zero emissions by 2050.

Mr. Mostert adds: “The fashion industry has an outsized impact on the environment, but initiatives such as these mean there is an equally significant opportunity to move the needle on climate change.”

One of the signatories, adidas Group (Germany) said it was committed to “reducing the absolute energy consumption and CO2 emissions, transitioning to clean energy and looking into energy harvesting opportunities to help mitigate climate change“. 

In addition to signing the charter and agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, the sportswear brand has introduced initiatives in its own operations and its supply chain, and through various partnerships.

The Rise of the Civic CEO

The task before us is huge but the initiatives are exciting, brands are on board, and consumer will is driving it.

Mr. Opoku-Asare says: “With 30,000 employees, we have the force to do good in society but we know we can’t do it alone. Collaborating with governments is key to stopping the crisis and creating jobs along the way.”

And, while traditionally reluctant to take a stance on hot-button politics, CEOs of brands, both big and small, are standing up. Across the world they’ve begun taking sides on divisive topics, including climate change as well as non-environmental issues such as gun control and immigration.

“Both employees and consumers expect that business leaders should make a positive impact on the world—they want them to be champions of social purpose both inside and outside of the organization,” says Mr. Opoku-Asare.

And it looks like the civic CEO is here to stay—76 percent of respondents in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer believe that CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.

Mr. Opoku-Asare adds: “CEOs who take public positions on specific issues that align to the values of the organization may win the hearts and minds of their employees and community.”

But he warns that every CEO must consider the potential impact of their public position on the company’s reputation and commercial ambitions—a Weber Shandwick (USA) study of 500 communications and marketing executives in the U.S., U.K. and China found that 73 percent believed there was a moderate to big risk to company reputation if a CEO speaks out.

Ms. Britton stresses that with the advent of social media, it is easier than ever for consumers to interrogate a brand’s performance on CSR commitments. This is especially true of the more media-literate younger generations.

“It is in this climate that any brand owner that pushes CSR as part of its branding needs to make sure they deliver on it,” she says.

“If they don’t, more brands will become vulnerable to accusations of ‘greenwashing’—making bold claims about their efforts on environmental sustainability which, on closer inspection, are less impressive than they sound.”

While there is no definitive way to make the world a better place, grand claims about sustainability efforts are clearly not enough. Brands must now walk the walk.

Beyond the Environment

Brands also are taking up causes that go beyond the environment.

In the fashion world, Autumn Adeigbo, Founder of Autumn Adeigbo (USA), has put corporate social responsibility at the top of the agenda at her startup.

The ethical fashion entrepreneur, who spoke at INTA’s 2019 March Conference: The Business of Brands, developed her colorful, women-focused fashion brand, with the vision of positively impacting the lives of women in Africa and the United States.

“We started with a laissez faire approach, with a percentage of our sales being put into the establishment of micro-entrepreneurships for women in Africa,” says Ms. Adeigbo. "But I wanted to produce the garments on the African continent.”

In August 2014, she piloted a program in Cape Coast, Ghana, training eight women to produce the brand’s garments with intensive hand-beading. She paid them fair-trade wages, increasing their income an average of 91 percent.

Two years later, the brand branched into Nigeria, paying four women 259 percent above the fair-trade wage minimum.

Apparel maker Patagonia (USA) spearheaded the nonpartisan Time to Vote campaign last year, enlisting almost 150 other companies to provide commitments to help employees and customers vote in the midterm elections.

At the National Basketball Association (USA), one of the world’s largest sporting brands, the league is seeking to “use the power of our brand and the celebrity of our players to address important social issues,” according to Todd Jacobson, Senior Vice President for Social Responsibility.

Mr. Jacobson highlights the NBA’s partnerships with Discovery Education and healthcare consortium Kaiser Permanente as initiatives “that would not exist without the NBA’s strategic focus on community.”

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