For better or worse: where planet, plastic and people collide

‘Can I have a plastic straw?’

Gone are the days when you overhear those words confidently shouted across a bar in central London. We’re all starting to channel our inner David Attenborough and think beyond our drinks to the wider impact of our actions on the planet around us. With campaigns like #strawssuck and Wimbledon’s recent announcement to ban plastic straws at this year’s Championship, plastic straws have been villainised, and rightly so.

Or wrongly? Earlier this year, as a growing number of businesses stopped using plastic straws in a bid to up their eco-credentials, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson spoke out. She highlighted something important. In the often-quick fix attempt to go green a group of people were overlooked. The significant number of disabled people who rely on plastic straws to drink independently (BBC, 2018).

So, what’s the answer?

This is where it gets tricky. Paper and glass alternatives have emerged, which is absolutely a step in the right direction. Only issue is that these aren’t always suitable or safe for the people who rely on straws. The answer is twofold. More understanding of the wider context is needed before setting these campaigns into motion, and more innovation is needed to create a truly sustainable solution for both people and planet.

But it’s not just about plastic straws. Something that’s been weighing on my mind when it comes to plastic and, all aspects of my life, is guilt-free consumption. Or maybe I should call it guilty consumption. Let me explain. In the same week that the ‘Planet or Plastic?’ National Geographic came through my letterbox I faced a dilemma. I filled my shopping basket to the brim with food for the week ahead, arrived at the checkout only to discover that I’d left my canvas bags to carry my shopping at home. It was too much to carry so I caved and said yes to one plastic bag whilst trying to balance the rest in my arms for the walk home. I felt guilty.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should guilt people into making changes that need to happen. In fact, I believe the real way to create a lasting shift in society is through positive and collective action that is embedded in human values. It’s about giving people a role to make the difference they want to see in the world. It’s not about guilting the consumer, it’s about making them part of the solution. We just need to ensure that we don’t do this in silo.

Yet, giving people a tangible role to play comes second. First things first, the organisations invoking these societal shifts need to be completely onboard with the mission. It’s not new news that social purpose doesn’t work as a bolt-on to a wider organisational framework. It needs to be at the heart of the work. Only then can real sustainable change flow from them.

Take IKEA for example. Their bid to be single-use plastic free by 2020 is made believable and seems achievable because their forward-thinking mentality is reflected across the wider brand and product range. From buying a forest in Romania, wind farms in Poland and investing in a plastic recycling plant in the Netherlands to their quirky experiential ‘pee-on’ in store advertising. They are taking innovation to new levels. It’s easy to believe in a brand’s social purpose if they’re already living and breathing it in store and out.

Similarly, Volvo have boosted their brand with their Living Seawall project, aiming to engage environmentally focused customers with the brand. It works because it aligns perfectly with Volvo’s overarching Scandinavian brand philosophy of innovation and sustainability. It gives plastic a purpose.

Sometimes brands attempt to embrace purpose and it doesn’t quite work, and sometimes it fails entirely. We all remember the Pepsi’s, to put it lightly, controversial advert, featuring Kendall Jenner at a protest. Despite attempting “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”, Pepsi ended up appearing to trivialise demonstrations and lacking sensitivity towards the Black Lives Matter movement. The ad didn’t work, not just because of its insensitivity, but because Pepsi were trying to force something with a one-off advert that wasn’t at the heart of their brand.

It’s time for brands from across sectors to think about their social purpose. It’s time to get it right. Is plastic part of the story? Is sustainability? If not, maybe it’s time to think about what really matters, and what makes sense for your brand. Maybe it’s time to put your values into action.