Leaky Faucet Problem – Do you Turn off the Water, or Grab a Bucket?

Insights from the Responsible Business Summit Europe 2019

I recently attended the Responsible Business Summit Europe 2019. My reason for attending was two-fold: to learn and inform my colleagues at yet2 as part of our internal initiative to increase our company’s social impact and to discover new ways we can help our clients improve their social impact through their open innovation efforts.

This was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to attend a conference along these lines. Quite a large share of the audience held roles and titles focused on bringing or shepherding sustainability initiatives in their organizations. It was truly inspiring to hear the large number of companies that have social and climate impact at the forefront of their corporate strategy.

One of my favourite sessions was Plastics Workshop – Reduction, Recycle and Replace, which was moderated by Dune Ives, chief executive officer, Lonely Whale and featured Redolfo Nervi, of Bacardi; Yolanda Malone of PepsiCo; Lorraine Francourt of The Dow Chemical Company; and Louise Koch, of Dell. One might find it interesting that companies that are large producers of virgin plastic – such as PepsiCo and The Dow Chemical Company – are actively invested in how we produce, use, consume and recycle plastics now and in the future.

The “lightbulb” moment for me in this session was when they presented the following analogy: “If you had a leaky faucet in your house and your house is being flooded, would you turn off the water, or would you grab a bucket?” Put into context of that panel, how do the global economy’s largest producers of virgin plastic do more to create a more circular economy and therefore produce less plastic?

There is no one answer; there are many. The organisation moderating the workshop, Lonely Whale, has a mission to bring “courageous ideas to life to save our ocean.” It describes itself as “an incubator for courageous ideas that drive impactful change on behalf of our ocean.” They are “working towards a new era of radical collaboration, together facilitation the creation of innovative ideas that push the boundary on current trends in technology, media and advocacy that positively impact the health of our ocean.” During the workshop Dune Ives explained that Lonely Whale engages large corporate clients to create new business models and practices to minimise environmental impact; they have worked with Bacardi, PepsiCo, The Dow Chemical Company, and Dell, just to name a few.

Another answer to the question of plastics was launched the second day of the conference. The 3R Initiative “will establish new standards and an innovative market mechanism for scaling up waste collection and recycling to keep plastic and other waste from polluting the environment and the world’s oceans.” It’s founding members (advisory, corporate, and technical) consist of:

The “join forces” approach is one that is popular. For example, the cosmetics industry has a similar initiative, SPICE, which is focused on sustainable packaging. It was co-founded by L’Oreal and Quantis, an organization focused on sustainability. Many of the world’s largest and well-known beauty and cosmetics brands are participating in this initiative. While its mission is broader than just plastics, certainly plastics falls within its scope.

Some companies are recognizing that there are significant efforts they can make on their own. Colgate-Palmolive, which estimates its toothpaste tubes are used in over half of the households in the world, determined it has “a responsibility to participate in reducing plastic issues around the world,” according to Ann Tracy, vice president of safety, global sustainability, and supply chain strategy at Colgate-Palmolive, as quoted in Fast Company. To address this, the company invested in designing a new type of toothpaste tube. It is the first-of-its kind recyclable toothpaste tube. Colgate has committed to “fully convert to recyclable tubes by 2025.” That will be the same year when all of the company’s products will be in 100% recyclable packaging.

Part of Colgate-Palmolive’s commitment to recyclable and sustainable packaging is demonstrated through its open innovation portal. For example, the company currently has a Open Innovation Challenge for Dissolvable Packaging that can be applied to bar soaps.

Often when we think of how to reduce our reliance on plastics, it’s about individual efforts, or municipal efforts. Yes, those small efforts do make a big impact. But how can global conglomerates make a humongous impact? That’s the true question.