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COVID19 vs Sustainability: Brands need strengthen their sustainability initiatives even more in the face of this crisis

Brand Vani Sustainability

The year 2020 has burdened us with the stress of the Novo Corona virus. It has played on our minds for most part of this year so far that, till now we have literally forgotten almost every other issue around the world. One of my friends shared the following image on Facebook and it pretty much sums up everything on my mind right now.

Image source: Facebook. Please contact us for credit or removal.

We are staring at a global pandemic in the face, while hidden behind it possibly are much larger threats.

Fighting COVID19 is taking a toll on our environment

Taking advantage of the fear of the disease spreading through contact, apparently plastics industry in the US has been calling for a removal of ban on single use plastics. That is being supported by retailers asking customers not to bring their own bags. It worries me that it would probably throw us back to square one; so much for the progress we made towards sustainability.

As if the single use plastic we created was not enough, the disposable masks and latex gloves are finding their way into our cities’ drainage systems and are being flushed out into our oceans. So, COVID19 is pretty much pushing us further into an unforeseen ruin in the not-so-distant future by screwing up the environment even more.

Based on an article on The Economist, the global disposable mask market will grow from $800m in 2019 to 1.66 billion in 2020. I can already imagine these items wreaking havoc around the world. As per the article its not only the masks, but a lot of other disposable plastics have also found their way into the environment, particularly our drainage system and consequently the oceans. Home delivery requires special packaging, be it e-commerce or food from restaurants. Since most people are opting for doorstep deliveries, shopping sprees online has led to a surge in non-recyclable, non-reusable types of plastics.

People root for sustainability but their actions speak of something else

We, as humans, are too shortsighted to see the consequences due to the decisions we make and actions we take. As we scamper to grab hold of the nearest hand sanitizer and disposable masks, we are leaving behind a possibly irreparable damage. One may say that we are more concerned about not contracting COVID19, than death by consumption of micro plastics.

But even in the pre-covid times, we weren’t really careful, were we?

An article by Harvard Business Review titled, “The Elusive Green Consumer”, cites that consumers are highly deceptive in their claims vs their actions with respect to the environmental concerns. So, no matter how viral things go on the internet, purchase and usage decisions are quite often different from the social media status updates. The HBR article does well to elucidate on how this can be changed.

A whopping 65% claimed to care for sustainability while buying brands. But eventually less than half of them stuck to their word while real actions were taken. A probably explanation is that we tend to speak a lot of things with our feelings, but act with our minds. An immediate cause for empathy drives our claims, but eventually when it is time to act, we act practically.

That is why most of us are using the disposable masks and throwing them away each day rather then looking for reusable, environment friendly ones. Well, as much as I would like all of us to reduce the usage of such items and resort to sustainable materials, market economics dictate that the cheapest and most widely available products will always win.

So, under such circumstances, how do we proceed? We can definitely spread awareness about this, and gather public opinion against this new form of pollution. But it needs the involvement of much larger and stronger communities.

I believe this is the point where the government and large organizations come in and show the way. Those who have the comfort and security of being successful and well off need to shoulder the responsibility of thinking for the future. Leader brands across categories need to take up this mantle and guide the path.

Brands that had some good ideas going before COVID19 came along

As per Nielsen research in the US, 74% of Millennials claim to be more likely to buy brands that support social causes. Taking a cue from the trends, brands need to work on their objectives which suit their business. Indeed, before COVID19 reared its ugly head up, many brands were on the right track regarding sustainability. This needs to be revived and brought back into their conversations on social media. Lets take a look at some of the good initiatives by strong organizations:

Nestle has been actively working towards sustainability

Nestle has been quite committed evidently to the cause of recycling. Their resolution to become completely recyclable or reusable in terms of packaging by 2025 is a steep ask. But they have been moving actively in this regard.

Since last year till more recently in June this year, they introduced paper packaging for multiple products: Nesquik, Yes! and Smarties. Such actions mean millions of those plastic packets floating around the ocean could be avoided. It is a small, but significant step. As per their commitments, Nestle will be partnering with external packaging experts to produce marine bio-degradable packaging materials. I would be pretty cool if its pulled off soon.

Apart from that, for the non-reusable materials, the company is running initiatives to recycle these items. The image below is an example of one such initiative I have seen in Lagos.

A sample of the initiative by Nestle, in partnership with LAWMA, and Wecyclers, Pic taken at Obalende.

Nestle has partnered with Wecyclers, an NGO which works towards recycling plastic. Not-so-fun fact, as per Wecyclers, Lagos alone generates about 10,000 tons of waste each day, most of which ends up in landfills and waterways. That’s a lot of waste from one city and that’s why we need many more such initiatives.

Adidas has shown us that recycling can be an excellent marketing tool too

I have written about Adidas’s recycling initiative before. These guys are doing some excellent work recycling plastic collected from the oceans and turning them into superb shoes. I own a pair of their and use it for my shorter runs due to their lightweight nature. They have not only come up with shoes, but also a wide range of accessories, shorts and T-shirts which are made from recycled ocean plastic. Check out their website to explore their products here.

Among the companies that I know are actively doing things, Nestle and Adidas are the two biggest names that come to my mind. These two brands have taken some major steps. Other than that, others have also committed pledges towards the cause and have taken the baby steps. But I expect more from them. Lets look at them below.

Unilever Initiatives

Unilever has a three pronged strategy, targeting consumer health and hygiene, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods. The goals are pretty broad and the targets are quite long term. Although I haven’t quite seen much evidence of the steps taken so far, even if Unilever does half of what it has committed, it would bring a huge impact to the overall pollution it causes.

Coca Cola

Similarly, Coca Cola has also promised to clean up the waste plastics and promote recycling. They have taken some steps so far, but like Unilever, I have mostly seen promises made towards achieving the objective by 2030 or so.

The battle has begun, but we need more action

The actions by all these brands are commendable. However, the effectiveness of these actions is also equally important. I mean, if I am not wrong, global warming and climate change have been a concern for over 2 decades now. But little has been done by governments, and consumers have not displayed any significant trend in purchase behaviors that would encourage companies to change their ways.

Last year, my first post was on sustainability, and how brands can contribute. You can refer to the post here. I had written about 4 different ways, divided into 2 categories, that can be adopted for making a positive impact, or let’s say, a less negative impact. These are just the basic steps, of course. There are many more things that can be done to contribute, especially for large manufacturing FMCG firms.

COVID19 or not, we must get back to talking about sustainability. Billions of single serve plastics are flowing into the oceans each day. If we do not do this now, then a virus that gives us flu could become one of our smallest concerns soon.

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