Five Hot Trends Driving Stakeholder Dialogue on Recycling

Guest Blog by Bill Shireman and Kellen Klein, Future 500

As today’s products grow increasingly varied and complex, so too does the stakeholder network calling on companies to reduce the negative impacts of the widgets they produce. The past two years have seen a particularly noticeable increase in domestic stakeholder activity around waste, recycling and packaging.

Due to their brand prominence and ability to enact change across industries and supply chains, consumer goods companies have found themselves most squarely in the crosshairs of these waste campaigners and advocates. And while all materials now come with their own stewardship challenges, plastics continue to be the most frequent target of NGO campaigns and policy battles.

The growing use of plastics in products and packaging, along with greater documentation of global plastic pollution, has energized stakeholders to adopt an “all of the above” approach to addressing the materials’ negative impacts. New corporate campaigns have emerged, but so too have collaborative public-private initiatives and innovative design challenges.

Similarly, stakeholders are adopting a variety of new narrative lenses through which to view waste challenges. These wide-ranging approaches can create headaches for companies struggling to prioritize sustainability projects and communicate effectively about them. Nonetheless, corporations that fail to keep up with current product stewardship vernacular risk exposing themselves to stakeholder campaigns or missing out on early adopter advantages.

While the basic “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra will always earn points with consumers, the majority of stakeholders now expect more nuance from the companies they choose to support­. Brands and retailers eager to keep up with the pack – and particularly those who go heavy on the plastic – should ensure they’re familiar with the following five stakeholder trends:

The recycling-climate nexus. With global dialogue on climate change now firmly shifting from debate to action planning, stakeholders and policy makers are eyeing all sectors for opportunities to reduce global emissions. The fossil fuel industry remains the “usual suspect” for advocates, but other sectors are also feeling the heat. Recognizing the emissions stemming from solid waste, some stakeholders are pressuring consumer goods companies to take greater responsibility for their products’ end-of-life climate impacts. Plastic products and packaging are particularly vulnerable to criticism due to the materials’ petroleum origins.

In a potential area of alignment with stakeholders, prescient consumer goods companies are now acknowledging the nexus of climate and recycling as a possible area to close the gap on carbon footprint goals. As climate dialogue ramps up in preparation for the COP21 conference in Paris this December, expect companies and stakeholders to increasingly examine the climate opportunities available at the end of the product life cycle.

Recycled content supply and demand. Leading companies and stakeholders clearly recognize the strong economic and environmental benefits possible through increased use of recycled content in consumer products and packaging. But progressing this preferred sourcing model for many plastics has been stymied by the harsh realities of supply and demand: weak and inconsistent infrastructure has limited plastic recovery, jacking up prices and impeding the demand by producers that would enable policy makers to justify recycling infrastructure investments.

In a bold step – and one that indicates the value of pre-competitive collaboration in achieving sustainability goals - some of the country’s largest brands and retailers are now aligning to tackle this impasse from both ends of the equation. To increase supply of recycled content, industry behemoths like Walmart, Unilever and Coca-Cola are uniting behind two voluntary producer responsibility (VPR) programs – the Closed Loop Fund and The Recycling Partnership – to inject new capital into municipal recycling programs and infrastructure.

Simultaneously, companies are hoping new commitments to recycled content will illustrate to recyclers and policy makers that demand is on the rise. Most notable is Nestle Waters, whose Resource brand recently rolled out the first 100 percent recycled-PET bottle to be distributed nation-wide. Such a commitment might still seem daunting for many consumer goods companies, but Nestlé anticipates others will soon follow their lead, incentivizing recycling infrastructure developers to scale accordingly.

Market-based campaigns. Multinational brands and their prominent consumer products have long been compelling targets for NGO campaigners eager to shift global economies toward more sustainable practices. But the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle have dramatically increased the number – and efficacy – of these market-based campaigns. While issues like climate change, deforestation and human rights are common focal points, America’s growing use of plastic is an emerging concern for advocates.

Even though plastic only accounts for about 12-15% of the US waste stream, it is a natural target for campaigners – tangible to end consumers, lagging recovery rates, and clear links to the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Recent campaigns have honed in on plastics with few or no end-of life solutions, such as apparel microfibers, microbeads in personal care products, and flexible packaging. These movements can create headaches for brands fearful of going viral, but companies open to engagement will find most campaigners eager to identify common ground solutions.

Marine debris. Governments, civil society stakeholders, and corporations alike increasingly acknowledge the critical role oceans play in sustaining the global economy, and are crafting new alliances to combat growing problems like ocean acidification and overfishing. But marine debris arguably remains the most prominent concern for ocean-focused stakeholders. In short, stakeholders are eager to leverage public awareness of concepts like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to tackle one of the issue’s key culprits – plastics pollution.

The problem of marine debris has proven to be a uniting force for the environmental community, uniting ocean, recycling, and other issue-specific advocacy groups around a common concern for the state of our seas. And while much of the discussion has focused on policy solutions, stakeholders are also aggressively recruiting the private sector toward market-based approaches. Ocean Conservancy has led this effort with its Trash Free Seas Alliance, aligning corporations like Nestlé Waters and Dow Chemical with leading NGOs and academics to develop new systems and products that keep plastics from ever reaching waterways.

Sustainable design. Ultimately, the most responsible way to manage waste is to not create any. Recognizing this, leading companies and sustainability advocates are working together to design products that “do more with less,” minimizing waste and transforming what remains into inputs for other sustainable systems.

The visionary William McDonough has arguably led this market revolution with his Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, but others are rapidly jumping on board. Most prominent is the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its advocacy for a circular economy. Companies like Nike and Interface are also taking bold strides to use sustainable design as a value-added business opportunity. The movement’s positive, innovation-based narrative makes it a particularly compelling entry point for risk-averse corporations still eager to up their sustainability street cred.

By Bill Shireman and Kellen Klein, Future 500