4 June 2019
Plastic-free businesses: Sian Sutherland on why it makes commercial sense to ditch plastic in the workplace
The Evening Standard
Take a right out of Belsize Park Underground station and you’ll soon come across the Thornton’s Budgens store on Haverstock Hill. Last year the supermarket worked with A Plastic Planet to become the first in the UK to introduce dedicated plastic-freezones. Lush fruit and vegetables, once sold in plastic wrappers, were made available in beechwood nets. Out went plastic meat trays, in came fully compostable alternatives that nature can easily handle. From wild game meat to coffee, indestructible plastic was ditched in favour of radically more sustainable alternatives.
The perceived wisdom is that plastic is good for business. It keeps costs down and margins strong. Or so we have been telling ourselves since the Fifties. So you would think Thornton’s Budgens would have taken a hit in the pocket as a result of ditching the plastic in favour of greener packaging. Not so. Since the shift to plastic-free packaging, the store’s takings are up by almost five per cent, with strong growth forecast for the rest of 2019.
It’s not just supermarkets that are making strides into a more plastic-free world. MediaCom and the new Conduit Club are both adopting the new A Plastic Planet Commitment Mark “Working Towards Plastic Free”. Following Soho House’s announcement last month that it will be doing the same, both businesses are undergoing their first internal “plastic audit”, creating a baseline they can report against as plastic reduction targets are achieved. Pauline Robson, managing partner of Real World Insight at MediaCom, has built a formidable “green team”. The entire business has committed to eliminate single-use plastic by 2020, way ahead of any Government targets.
They wisely start with the areas where they can engage with most employees, helping them all feel part of the change. From our work with big businesses such as Unilever, we know eliminating plastic from the workplace and supply chain creates a tremendous camaraderie and personal empowerment throughout the whole business. Once we know what we know, we can never unknow. People want to change, they just need to be given the choice to do so. All MediaCom employees now have a reusable water bottle, saving quarter of a million plastic cups alone. Not only has this resulted in a reduction of two tonnes of plastic that will languish in our environment for centuries, it has also saved the business money. Plastic-free really is a win-win.
Research published last year indicated packaging waste could trump price and value as shoppers’ number one cause for concern within a decade. A survey by GlobalWebIndex revealed in April this year that more than half of British consumers reduced the amount of disposable plastic they used in the previous year.
International brands brave enough to take meaningful plastic-free action too have been richly rewarded by consumers desperate for change. SodaStream has made kits for consumers looking to make fizzy drinks at home for decades. In 2016 it released a series of videos featuring Game of Thrones actors highlighting the lunacy of single-use plastic water bottles. The videos drew the ire of some of the world’s biggest drinks producers. The public loved it. Profits soared and within two years the company had been acquired for £2.4 billion.
Now markets are rewarding plastic-free innovation and punishing those that fail to change for a simple reason. As consumers we’re crying out for something radically better. Something elevated. Something plastic-free.
Saturated with endless reams of plastic, modern-day supermarket shopping has become a joyless experience. Shoppers are greeted by aisle after aisle of products encased in colourful throwaway packaging. Layers of impenetrable plastic make it extremely difficult for shoppers to experience any kind of sensory connection with the food they buy. Shoppers want to be able to connect with food again. To smell it. To touch it. To look beyond the miserable confines of the plastic packet. We’re talking about food here, not razor blades. People are hungry to reconnect with the rich bounty that nature gives us.
They want to be able to fall in love with food again. More roast dinners sat at the table with your nearest and dearest. Fewer sandwiches eaten out of plastic wrappers wolfed down in packed commuter trains. But our hankering for something better goes beyond the food we buy. It goes right to the heart of how we interact with our material possessions. It makes us question what brings us happiness and what deprives us of fulfilment.
Plastic is our gateway drug to the dubious world of rampant consumerism. It has become a cause célèbre for those hankering after a radical overhaul of how we frame our relationship with materialism, value and time. Plastic is code for the kind of dubious excess that is robbing us of our planet, our health and our wellbeing. Plastic is joyless clutter. Often it is neither beautiful nor functional. It devours space and resources. It gives us nothing yet takes everything.
The average UK household now suffers under the burden of more than £15,000 of unsecured debt. The UK storage industry has an annual turnover of close to £750 million, with the amount of storage space having doubled in a decade. Britons now command the most personal storage space of any country in Europe. We are accumulating more and more plastic clutter, labouring under the illusion that it will make us happier. The time has come for us to wean ourselves off the dopamine hit of cheap buys and replace it with the serotonin slow buzz of decluttering, saving our hard-earned money for truly joyful experiences. On World Environment Day tomorrow, up to a billion people from around the globe will come together as part of the landmark One Plastic Free Day 2019. In an unprecedented global call to action, social media users from across the world are being asked to post images of the things they want to see go plastic-free.
It could be your Biro, your drink bottle, your trainers, your magazine wrapping, your carpet or your toothbrush. Once our eyes are open, plastic is omnipresent in our lives. The results will for the first time paint a true picture of the scale of the plastic-free challenge facing countries across the world. Now more than ever we are getting behind those visionaries that are making real the alternatives we’re crying out for. The future belongs to those prepared to go all out to give the public what they want: a plastic-free world.