A new responsible age of environmental leadership in America

By Caroline Cox in Sustainable Packaging on April 05, 2018

As public concern for unchecked management of plastic waste grows, national governments are responding with lofty goals to mitigate a looming environmental crisis. Seemingly one by one, international leaders have declared war on plastic waste.

Undeniably, however, U.S. leaders aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to prioritize environmental legislation. The absence of environmental leadership in federal government is demanding a new system of progress. Fortunately, not all heroes wear capes and not all leaders are elected.

As a result of a rising concern over single-use plastic waste and an evolving consumer base, American corporations are joining global leaders to fill the environmental leadership void our administration has left behind and announced ambitious sustainability goals.

Global and corporate leaders alike are taking a stand against plastic waste. Since the beginning of 2018 alone, several global leaders and organizations have announced commitments to mitigate plastic waste:

• The European Commission developed a strategy to make all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.

• Prime Minister Theresa May has declared the U.K. an international leader in environmental issues and set goals to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

• The Queen of England herself banned plastic straws and bottles at royal estates.

• Even small islands, like Taiwan, have a strategy to ban all single-use plastic bags, straws and tableware by 2030.

Comparatively, of the top 200 corporate giants in the world, almost all of them have specific, public goals. Focusing largely around packaging sustainability, companies like McDonald’s are setting goals to make 100% of its customer packaging come from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025. Walmart is looking at end-of-life opportunities by designing for recyclability and aims to have 100% recyclable packaging by 2025. Coca-Cola is propelling material recovery by collecting and recycling the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030. Target is reinforcing a demand for post-consumer recycled (PCR) material in the wake of China’s National Sword by creating three new end markets for recycled materials by 2020.

It’s always incredible when individual companies announce sustainability goals that address issues of national importance, but when a cascade of dynamic recyclability commitments is initiated alongside one another, amazing things can happen. Once set in motion, progress often occurs like a chain reaction—one right after another. Advances toward one goal often make the next more manageable, more attainable.

By innovating and designing packaging for recyclability, brands are making it easier to capture valuable material and essentially lowering the operational costs of developing a high-quality PCR resin. By making recycling easier and more accessible to consumers, brands are optimizing the opportunity of material recovery, and thereby reducing the chances of it becoming litter.

Steps like this are vital to prevent the four to 12 million metric tons of plastic waste that make their way into our oceans every year.

 

Drivers, from the bottom up

This wave of voluntary commitments represents a larger flood of environmental consciousness. Ultimately, companies are guided by the expectations of their consumers—and Millennials (who are expected to officially have the most spending power of all generations this year) are demanding more from the companies they support. 75% of Millennials expect brands to demonstrate social engagement, and 66% are willing to spend more on a product from a sustainable brand.

America may not currently have many elected federal officials setting environmental commitments, but that may be for the best. Many companies are already doing more than any realistic federal guidance would ever suggest in today’s political arena. U.S. companies are demonstrating that environmental responsibility doesn’t have to be a trickle-down system. Instead, corporate accountability can stem from grassroots energy and consumers speaking their values through their wallets. This likely ignites more authenticity, transparency, strategic planning and follow-through from goal setters.

Comparatively, there’s some skepticism across the pond that national goals and initiatives might result in unfulfilled promises rather than actual progress. “It’s easy to make lots of commitments about things that will be done when you’re no longer in office,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of international environmental network, Friends of the Earth. But American consumers may be holding brands to a higher standard if their purchasing behavior and reaction to scandals is any indication. With little toleration for “fake news,” the majority of consumers are demanding authenticity by checking if a brand’s social responsibility claims are true and supported with specific action.

Ultimately, what is driving environmental progress in America today is coming from the bottom up—the people. Consumers are demanding advances in sustainability, and corporate sustainability goals are a medium of consumer expectations. In the absence of administrative leadership, a new type of leader is forming. This is the change we’ve been waiting for. This is the leadership we need in today’s America.

 

Caroline Cox is project manager, at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, focusing on the How2Recycle program. She holds a B.S. in Psychology and two minors in Environmental Studies and Spanish. Cox is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Natural Resources from Virginia Tech. Previously, she worked in marketing and management for a real estate firm, led a sustainable agriculture camp for local youth, and studied in the Ecuadorian highlands of the Andes and lowlands of the rainforest.

 

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