A Different Path to Sustainability

The Blue Planet effect has driven the need for better sustainability policies to the forefront of the conversation. With consumers demanding solutions from big business, things are finally happening. But are they the right things? 

Lego’s sustainable, plant-based plastic bricks

There are many different contributors to environmental harm from deforestation disrupting the balance of ecological systems to the compounding drain on natural resources as our population grows. There’s soil degradation and climate change. Gorillas, tigers and rhinos are almost gone, and water shortages have reached a critical point. The sad reality is that our culture of consumption has gotten us in trouble – and, as always, we’ve named a scapegoat. In this case, plastic. 

Whether driven by the visual of a plastic island as big as France floating in the Pacific or emboldened by the the ability to do something, however small, the eradication of plastic has sprinted to the top of the list. Major retailers make the headlines with promises to rid their products of plastic packaging. Plastic-free aisles and shops are popping up all over the country. And everyone can feel they’re doing their part by purchasing a reusable water bottle. 

S’well reusable water bottles are designed to make a statement

It’s a notable shift towards environmental consciousness. It’s big business conglomerates finally taking responsibility. It’s positive change in our behaviour. And we’re saving the sea turtles. But wait – is this laser-like focus on ridding the world of the plastic menace a bit short-sighted? Are we failing to see the bigger picture and ignoring the possible negative effects of these seemingly noble policies? In essence, are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater? 

GIVE PLASTIC A CHANCE

It may be an unpopular opinion, but it is also a valid one held by many scientists, experts and realists. Whilst plastic pollution is a detrimental problem that needs attention, plastic, in and of itself, is not evil. In fact, it is a wonder material that has enabled innovative advances that have transformed and improved our lives in numerous ways. 

When it comes to food, plastic protects us from harmful contaminates, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people don’t get sick. It facilitates the shipping of food and resources around the world (and before you say, ‘every one should shop seasonally and locally,’ please consider places like the Central African Republic, Chad and Yemen were food shortages are putting millions of people at the risk of starvation.)

Plastic also plays an important role in the fight against food waste, which is another mounting issue that is fails to get public acknowledgment.  Wasted food produces methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And I’ve yet to even touch on the multiple benefits of plastic in the medicine, technology, and energy. 

Wasted food is the number one filler in landfills

This is not to negate the positive actions of both companies and the public in reducing our dependency on plastic, particularly in modifying the careless behaviour towards single-and-silly-use plastics. Rather, I am trying to highlight that the global environmental crisis is not the result of a single culprit and thus, cannot be ‘quick fixed.’ Furthermore, creating solutions with single-issue focus, like eliminating plastic, could lead to more problems than it solves. To find real solutions, we must take a holistic and practical approach to sustainable change, and accept that the true causes are human and systemic, deeply-rooted in how we think and how we behave, in what we value and what we believe. 

DIFFERENT PATHS TO SUSTAINABILITY 

Here are three alternative areas for brands to explore for a more sustainable future. They increase in complexity to achieve, but also in opportunity and impact: Dematerialisation, Circular Infrastructure and Cultural Change.

Dematerialisation:

The ultimate success would be when a product or service can be delivered in virtual form with a much lower need for raw materials. Music is a great example. Once supplied on plastic discs and cassettes, music is now completely virtual. Other products, benefits and experiences may be more of a challenge to deliver virtually, but therein lies the opportunity.

Carling’s Thunder Jeans are only available in a digital format 

Dematerialisation is the process of using less material in the products we consume. At one level, it makes common and commercial sense to use the minimum material required to protect and deliver a product. At a certain point, however, minimised materials may be too fragile to continue in a circular economy where a slightly heavier material would have a recyclable future. 

Circular Infrastructure:

Certainly in the UK, and possibly in other countries, the required infrastructure for a circular economy is inadequate, underfunded and, currently, not commercially competitive. Part of the cause is that exporting waste from the UK is a sanctioned and valid activity, making domestic services under-supported and uncompetitive. However, now that China has stopped accepting waste export, domestic waste management services have the opportunity to create viable technologies and begin to close the loop on materials locally. 

Sustainability-led start-up Recycling Technologies is about to start a funding round to commercialise a machine that will convert all current non-recyclable sachets, black plastics and more, back in to the base oil product it came from.

Rather than changing materials and compromising products, brands can focus on collaborating and supporting new domestic recycling technology. At the end of the day, everything is recyclable. All that is needed is a commercially viable system to do it. 

Cultural Change:

The true answer to our sustainability woes is for everyone to buy a lot less stuff. Whilst the West likely consumes more than they need, developing countries deserve the right to aspire to at least some of these consumption habits – particularly in areas such as nutrition and hygiene.

The more difficult issue to consider is that the capitalist system of the majority of the world requires consumption to power it. Separating the basic human need of food, water, shelter and sleep from the escalating consumer desire that drives consumption is nearly impossible.

Therein lies the challenge and opportunity, again. Perhaps a brand, community or culture will build a future system where basic needs are fulfilled outside of competitive consumption. This would then allow us to find self-fulfilment and self-expression through experiences that are much less reliant on materials.

Maybe this idea is utopian, but by imagining the steps we’d need to take to get there, we may discover some real world solutions that can make all the difference. 

Thomas Herman is Founder and Marketing Director of Path.

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