Sustainability means survival

Sustainability means survival

By Andrew McCaffery, Global EPR Director

Combine the cost of sustainability with an impending recession, and the future of our planet is looking more precarious than ever.

Between war, pandemics, inflation, and the overarching climate crisis, it is easy to make dire observations about our societies. However, the need to invest in our future makes it clear that now is the time to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Companies that ignore their impact on the environment don’t just alienate customers and turn off investors. Ultimately, says a new business brief from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they face “existential challenges”. We have gotten to the point where we’ve had 27 years of COPs, and we know that if we’re going to avoid the worst impact of climate, we have to half emissions in this decade.

The conversation about costs is to be appreciated but winning slowly is the same as losing. And we’re on the cusp of losing. And if we do, we will all live to wish we were back at this moment and to have done something different.

There is a growing acceptance that we need sustainability to keep scaling in terms of corporate performance and practice, even while the economy worsens. As such, there is cautious optimism that in contending with and overcoming these ordeals, executives are more confident in their companies’ resilience and are focused on mitigating some of the genuine uncertainties we face today.

The cost-of-living crisis following two years of Covid and global lockdowns is making us feel like we are in a perpetual Deja-vu curve; a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. But it must accelerate the pressure on businesses to think about their business models.

Selfridges, one of the major departmental stores still left in central London, has made a bold move by announcing that by 2030 at the latest, half of all transactions in store will either be resale, rental, repair or refill. This is an excellent example of the kind of rethink businesses will have to undertake. The department store group’s managing director said, “we have got to commit to a significant and fundamental shift in the way we do business and use the platform of Selfridges for change”.

This also opens a wider discussion about reduction, which is essential as there has been little emphasis on it, and it is the most important element of the waste hierarchy.

Five or 10 years ago, you might find a good number of executives deeply sceptical and pushing back all the time. Nowadays, discordant voices have become few and far between. Everyone can now see that this is business critical. The way people see pressures from business customers and employees has shifted – and neither of those groups is going to look very favourably on an organisation that in 2021 made significant commitments to sustainability and ESG and said it is fundamental to the future of our business – but when a crisis comes along, begins to row its commitments back.

If businesses cut and run now, who will believe us when we make big promises and commitments in the future?

We need more companies to heed this warning.

Some organisations will have to re-profile because of what is happening in the world, but our core commitment has to be increased because we will need to leverage our commitment to sustainability at some stage.

Consumers are not abandoning their stance on plastic pollution, climate change and the environment. A new survey by Eviosys shows that 72% of consumers will not trade off sustainability even as inflation worries loom. There’s a consensus that sustainability is about using fewer resources and making those we do use go even further. Whether it is energy, water, fuel, construction materials or packaging materials, such as plastic, using less guides our decisions. When organisations get sustainability right, it helps fight against the climate emergency and reduces operating costs and the cost of goods. In a cost-of-living crisis, sustainability done well helps organisations fight the inflationary pressures seen elsewhere in the business.

In a recent poll of 1,325 professionals by KPMG, 69% said they had seen a “significant” increase in demand for reporting on, and other transparency around, ESG issues in the past year. A similar proportion (72%) believe that stakeholder scrutiny of their organisation’s ESG approach and reporting will increase in the coming year.

Businesses need to determine what must be true for a package to be recyclable and if there is data available to support a claim. Companies struggle to manage specification data for packaging. For many, this information is held by suppliers or sits in legacy systems, making it difficult to access and view material use in aggregate. Access to this data is essential for a sustainable packaging strategy to be successful and for fiscal responsibility to be apportioned fairly.

Our proven tools for visibility into extended supply chains are now providing an opportunity to improve collaboration and the efficiency of the working relationship between customers and suppliers, which benefits both businesses and the environment.

It is also worth considering that the cost gaps between sustainably designed packaging and cheaper alternatives (cheaply produced plastics, for example) may not be as noticeable as they once were. As environmentally driven legislation, such as the plastic tax, continues to take effect, unsustainable packaging materials will become increasingly unattractive to retailers and packaging buyers.

Data quality will prove instrumental to the successful future of our waste management landscape. It will rubber stamp or authenticate pledges of the future.

We’re living in the golden age of packaging. There is a broader array of options and more consumer demand than at any other time in history. But as with anything else, all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold. Some of that glittering you see in the distance is discarded plastics and other packaging materials piling up in your local landfill.

Trends in corporate sustainability have been mostly consistent — an expanding climate crisis, lightning-speed growth in clean tech, rising pressure from many stakeholders, and more.

So, while major companies continue to make bold and binding commitments, it is the little bakery on the corner to the small manufacturer that needs support with compliance. Everyone is using plastics everywhere. So everyone should shoulder responsibility.

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