Some of the world’s largest and most influential companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Adidas and Unilever have been employing avoidance strategies to delay action on plastic reduction. The global plastic crisis is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time and despite the growing awareness of the problem and the urgent need for action, some corporations have been slow to take meaningful steps to reduce their plastic use.
Plastic is a threat for the environment and human health
Plastic is growing exponentially. There were 368M tons of plastics produced in 2020. Urgent action is vital, as given the current trend, plastic pollution could triple by 2040.
However, it is a threat to the environment as well as human health. At every step of their lifecycle, plastics release hazardous substances that contaminate the air, water and soil, and contribute to climate change during their production through the emission of greenhouse gases. Marine ecosystems are particularly affected by the growing presence of plastics. Once they sink down to the depths, they break down and remain there, invisible and threatening marine species and poisoning the whole food chain by releasing their chemical additives.
For human health, plastic is also problematic. The exposition to a large variety of toxic chemicals and microplastics through inhalation, ingestion, and direct skin contact, all along the plastic lifecycle, is toxic.
Plastic is everywhere (in all our uses) because it is a cheap raw material and easy to handle for industries. They are putting in place clever strategies to make it look like they are committed, which only slows down the process of deplastification. Companies must stop relying on false solutions and start deplastifying their activities, as this is the only way out of global plastic pollution and its devastating environmental and human consequences.
The 5 avoidance strategies deployed by companies
With the Break Free From Plastic movement, we have created a report on the five avoidance strategies deployed by companies to continue polluting.
1. Shifting the burden away
To reduce their own accountability, some companies have decided to emphasize the role of consumers, vulnerable communities, and local authorities in the plastic crisis. In these companies’ narrative, plastic pollution occurs because the consumer fails to sort the packaging in the right recycling bin and because local authorities fail to properly manage waste.
One of the biggest challenges that Nestlé faces is plastic pollution, and a substantial part of their efforts focuses on working with public authorities to set up recycling infrastructure and education programs. Plastic recycling rates worldwide are alarmingly low, with only 9% of plastics being recycled. Contrary to popular belief, consumers are not solely responsible for this low rate, as sorting waste is not the primary issue. The main challenge lies in the fact that many plastics cannot be recycled economically due to high costs. Additionally, the ongoing increase in plastic production and consumption further exacerbates the struggle for recycling facilities to meet the demand.
It may seem like Nestlé is doing a good job by investing in these programs. These recycling programs are putting the spotlight on consumers and local authorities while diluting the company’s own role in the plastic crisis. Emphasizing the responsibility of others has a consequence: it reduces the company’s duty to reduce its plastic and transfers the cost of managing the pollution on other shoulders
2. Investing in the wrong direction
Research & Development (R&D) and investments play a key role in defining a company’s strategy: they design the pathway to be respected for the following decades. Today, most investments and R&D expenses for plastics concerns are focused on technologies that knowingly fail to fully solve the crisis alone like improving recycling, incorporating recycled plastics or bioplastics.
Unfortunately, these measures won’t successfully solve the plastic crisis unless accompanied by a strong deplastification strategy. Increasing recycled plastics or bioplastics cannot prevent plastic from reaching the ocean, neither can it reduce sanitary and human rights risks related to plastics
For example, Total Energies has structured its investments and R&D strategy towards creating new capacities in virgin, recycled or bioplastic production. With this strategy, the company locks itself – and the whole of society with it – into long-lasting infrastructures and technologies that knowingly fail to address the plastic crisis.
3. Striking a chord with consumers
Companies like Adidas and IKKS have developed communication strategies aiming to convince consumers that their products are part of the solution to “save the environment”. Through the slogans and logos, they use, these companies create the impression that they are committed to reducing their plastic impact and that the consumer can make a difference by buying their products, even though their properties have in no way been proven to have any beneficial impacts on the ocean or the environment.
To illustrate, the French Council for Advertisement Ethics stated that the Adidas advertisement for Stan Smith “100% iconic, 50% recycled” shoes and the IKKS sailor-stripe shirt that “cleans the ocean” were not in line with the Council’s recommendations. Both products were criticized for the difference between the reality of their action, in proportion to the messages promoted in their ads.
4. Using the smoke and mirrors strategy
Industries’ secret weapon involves mastering every detail of the company’s communication, in particular its sustainability indicators. These act like the Instagram ‘beauty’ filters of polluting companies. If they look good, if the target seems both ambitious and in the process of being attained, then the company has the power to claim before its shareholders, its consumers, and before public authorities that everything is under control.
For example, Unilever provides a good example of how poor plastic reduction performances can be made more beautiful with flattering or unclear calculation methodologies, reporting and rating tools.
There is also the misleading concept of ‘plastic neutrality’, which companies that a growing number of companies deploy thus contributing to delay action. The idea behind it is to enable companies to continue using plastic by funding the collection and recycling of an equivalent amount of plastic waste in the environment, thus achieving “neutrality.” However, this concept has been widely criticized by experts in the field of sustainability as it gives the impression that plastic waste is being effectively managed while allowing companies to continue their business as usual.
5. Acting behind the scenes
Many companies work hard to shape a positive image of sustainability. Advertisements, commitments, events, sustainability indexes, etc. – it all is a good way of being seen as Best-in-Class. But behind the sustainable leader image created, companies may have another hidden agenda.
To illustrate, companies such as Coca-Cola have become experts in discreetly fighting plastic regulations. Coca-Cola also produces the largest amount of plastic waste and has been ranked the biggest plastic-polluting company in every annual Branded Audit report by the Break Free From Plastic movement since 2018. It has skillfully managed over the years to delay, distract, and derail decisive plastic reduction regulations.
All in all, these brands stay the favorite brands of many consumers and use this status to justify the fact that they are polluting this much.
Our economy is addicted to plastic, so deplastification is the only reasonable answer to our plastic addiction.
We call on companies to embrace change and start deplastifying their activity now if they want to maintain their social license to operate and continue their activities in tomorrow’s world and in full respect of our people and planet. To achieve this, citizens, with the support of NGOs, and governments, must keep on scrutinizing and denouncing companies’ avoidance strategies and false solutions.