How to get companies to use less plastic

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2018 saw 3.4 million people from 177 countries sign up for Plastic Free July.

Lots of conscious consumers reached out to brands about reducing their plastic packaging. However, if done wrong, those messages may never make it to the right people, or they may be ignored altogether.

Here are three common mistakes we’ve seen, and what to do instead. After all, Plastic Free July is just the beginning!

(Prefer listening to reading? Sabine had a chat with Sian Conway on the Ethical Hour Changemaker Chats podcast.)

Mistake 1: Asking for a total plastic ban

This may be controversial, but hear us out…

We must reduce the amount of plastic waste that’s floating around on our planet — from ocean plastic to birds’ nests and forests. We also need to reduce our dependency on petroleum, which we’re using to power our vehicles and engines, heat our homes and make products… such as plastic.

If all plastic was banned tomorrow, we’d still be left with 5 billion tons of plastic waste from previous years — much of which enters our oceans in developing countries.

Demand changes that will make a real difference:

  • Ask manufacturers to use more recycled plastics. The Ellen McArthur Foundation recommends a circular plastic economy in which recycling becomes a valuable activity. So valuable, in fact, that the material stops being discarded as useless waste AND people in developing countries can make a living collecting and sorting the plastic that contaminates their surroundings.
  • Ask brands to make their plastic packaging reusable, and to accept customers bringing their own reusable packaging when they shop.
  • Compostable, eco friendly alternatives to plastic foil exist, but they’re not used widely enough. Ask brands to use them (properly labelled so they don’t end up mixed into plastic waste).
  • Ask your local authority to introduce commercial composting facilities. These can break down biodegradable ‘plastics’ so local farmers can reuse the valuable nutrients to grow their plants. A natural example of the circular economy!

Mistake 2: Tweeting a question to the brand

It may be the easiest way to get the word out, create awareness and win likes and followers… but it’s not the most productive way to challenge a brand. Eptica found that in 2017, only 34% of tweets to UK customer service teams got a satisfactory response. And even if you do get a reply, the advisor sending it is usually not in a position to make any changes to how the company operates. So if you’ve been tweeting a brand and got no (or no good) response, you’re not alone.

Twitter conversation with the team at Tesco in the UK.

Photo of tweet used with permission of user.

Do some research and contact the right people in the right way:

  • Letters get way more attention than any digital message. They’re quite rare, they demonstrate you care about delivering your message, and they show you’re invested in the cause — after all, you paid for postage.
  • If you really don’t want to post a letter, send an email instead.
  • Head over to LinkedIn or your favourite search engine and find out the names of people heading up supply chain, sustainable development or product management. Heads of customer service, marketing or corporate communications are also a good choice.
  • If you can, find out a bit about their interests. Have they liked an article about sustainability? Is there any human connection between the two of you?
  • Address your letter or email to them personally. Even if the person you’re writing to decides to delegate the reply to someone else, they will at least be aware that you did get in touch — and usually they will have read what you had to say.
  • This should go without saying, but: always, always be respectful and treat them at eye-level. No matter how passionate you are about banning plastics from your home.

Mistake 3: Jumping on an NGO’s bandwagon

There are lots of organisations fighting the good fight and drawing our attention to the problems caused by plastic. Some of them offer petitions, template letters and pre-written material that you just need to sign and send off to the company you want to challenge.

As someone who’s seen what it’s like when a brand gets thousands of identical complaint emails in a single day, Sabine knows from first-hand experience that this is not the most successful way to change things.

Yes, it puts pressure on the company…

But in many companies, the customer service team is left to deal with this.

And since this kind of message distracts customer service from their real task (helping a customer with their question) — and there is no personal investment into the template message — don’t be surprised if you never hear back, or get a template at best.

Here’s how to get your message heard:

  • If you feel inspired to take action based on an NGO’s campaign, invest some of your time and energy.
  • Make it personal. Tell your story, and show you’re a real customer who wants to connect with the brand.
  • If you’re using a template, tailor it to your own circumstances.
  • Consider printing your message and posting it, or adding value in any of the ways explained above.
  • Don’t be an armchair activist. Put your money where your mouth is, walk the talk, vote with your wallet — you don’t want to turn NGOs into toothless tigers whose campaigns can be safely ignored.

Towards a #PlasticFreeLife

Awareness dates are a great start, but we mustn’t educate companies to brace themselves for a month of ‘noise’ before ‘everything goes back to normal’ in August.

If we want to break our dependency on disposable, un-recycled plastic, we need to keep the conversation going beyond July.

Feel free to share your conversations about reducing plastics with us, whether they worked well or not. And if you’re a brand struggling to find the right way to respond, we’d love to hear from you too.