Let’s not overlook the low-hanging fruit in corporate sustainability

During a holiday in Cornwall, I picked up Lucy Siegle’s Turning the Tide on Plastic, in which the journalist and eco-lifestyle expert uncovers the destructive impact of plastic pollution. With her approach to tackling plastic use, Siegle shows how anybody can “switch from being part of the problem to part of the solution.”

Walking the talk, Siegle points out that she has no problem “returning annoying, egregious packaging to the sender.” In fact, she sent the following letter to BMW, which at the time of publishing the book was still pending response:

Dear Paul

You recently sent a copy of the latest edition of your magazine to me. I’m not in the market for a new car, so it was slightly optimistic, but nevertheless thank you.

However, the packaging caused me huge concern. The use of plastics is completely unsustainable. Lightweight plastic films and wraps remain one of the most pressing parts of the issue.

There are two problems here: the wrap is printed and displays a lot of info. It has an extra picture of a car which is already on the magazine cover, so is needless. It also shows information directing me to a change in the data protection laws reminding me to ‘opt in’. But there is no room on this pack for information about recycling the plastic you’ve dumped on me.

As the wrap is printed, this causes extra problems. Plastics containing metal, oily food residue or inks, that add up to five per cent of the weight, are not suitable for recycling. So you’ve produced an avoidable and very annoying piece of plastic, which I am returning to you, enclosed.

It also goes against your brand values, which rest on clean, green, intelligent design.

I’d be really keen to hear your targets for plastics in marketing communications, and if you don’t have any, I would be delighted to suggest some.

Very best,
Lucy

Siegle suggests that consumers can lobby companies to change their plastics use, through letters or even through messages on social media. Even though tweets, emails or letters may be ignored, she points out that many companies are alert to criticism on their plastic use.

She recommends researching the company’s position on plastic and referring to the disparity between their plastic reduction policy and their practices when confronting them.

Addressing a company’s packaging
When I received some wrongly addressed, plastic-wrapped promotional mail last year, I decided to email the following to the company’s customer support:

Dear [Company],

Here at [address] we’re receiving promotional mail by [Company] that’s meant for [different company address], while that company is not located here. Therefore, I would like to kindly request not to send any more promotional mail to this address.

In addition to that, I have a tip: if [Company] were to stop using plastic wraps around advertising brochures, that would prevent a lot of CO2 emissions, and also reduce costs. Besides, it would land well with potential clients who also value environmental protection. Definitely an idea to send to the relevant department.

Thanks in advance!

Kind regards,

Sander van Holsteijn

Within several hours I received a reply saying that my recommendation had been shared with the company’s marketing department. It also said I would be receiving the brochure once or twice more before the client database was updated.

Indeed, several weeks later, a fresh brochure fell on the doormat. This time without plastic wrap.

Since the company, which sells office supplies, is quite large and well-known, it felt somewhat like a victory to have contributed to a change in its marketing policy with a simple email.

Pointing out the benefits
My email was not necessarily confronting, nor did I return the brochure to the company. Instead, I pointed out the benefits of getting rid of plastic wrap for the environment and for the company’s bottom line.

Once I realized that a short and polite email can actually reduce plastics use, I started looking for other low-hanging fruits that could be addressed to increase corporate sustainability.

The list is pretty long: branded water bottles for marketing in areas with high-quality tap water, restaurants using plastic tea bags, cafés serving condensed milk and sugar with every cup of coffee, individually-wrapped cookies and candy… and there are many more extreme examples.

Minor changes with major impact
Just a few days ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published its Upstream Innovation guide, which “tells how to harness the power of upstream innovation as a root-cause solution to plastic waste.”

Some solutions are as simple as removing the plastic film from multi-buy tins and applying the discount deals at the checkout, getting rid of plastic wrapping around greeting cards, and acknowledging that bananas are already wrapped by design.

Just by no longer wrapping their peppers, Walmart now eliminates about 87 tonnes of plastic film every year. And that’s just for one retailer and one type of product.

These examples show how much environmental impact can be prevented by addressing everyday practices, even without advanced policy or technology to solve them.

I am convinced that consumers can change how companies conduct business. Sometimes they just need to be pointed in the right direction.

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