In terms of climate-related issues, it doesn’t get much bigger than the conversation around plastic.
Researchers estimate that a truckload of plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute, totaling 8 to 12 million metric tons each year. At this rate, plastic could outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050.
The issue represents both a physical and human problem as people end up consuming more plastic through the process and all of that discarded packaging contributes to an annual US$100 billion hit on the global economy.
Lia Colabello was already well-versed in the bigger picture working for the 5 Gyres Institute, a research and education organization based in Los Angeles focused on marine plastic pollution. She found that brands needed help building an actionable, effective game plan to combat plastic usage.
In 2017, she launched Plastic Pollution Solutions (PPS) in Charleston, S.C., an agency dedicated to helping companies with their sustainability efforts and scaling up to create tangible impact. Creating a standalone shop has empowered her to work with brands including Costa Sunglasses, hydration company Nuun, Innersense Organic Beauty, and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
Since then, the agency’s partnership initiatives have eliminated 4 million single-use plastic water bottles from operations and engaged 2,000 businesses globally to reduce their impacts and participate in community cleanups.
Penta recently caught up with Colabello, 46, to learn about some of the key sustainability issues facing global business, and where tangible change ends up being the most effective as a company works toward a greener culture.
PENTA : What does “sustainability” mean to you?
Lia Colabello: Sustainability has so many different definitions, but overall, it’s looking comprehensively at the choices and impacts we have on the world. You can’t think unilaterally about it. Sustainability makes us think differently about the systems that businesses currently thrive on and it offers this incredible opportunity to get creative. It’s about not just having eyes on the immediate prize, but on the long-term as well.
How have you noticed conservation and environmental causes changing the ethos of the luxury industry?
Luxury, and fashion, specifically, are having a moment. I think the Adidas/Stella McCartney collaboration has been very strong and it signals that consumers are willing to pay more for a better product with a more sustainable story behind it. Trends are indicating this and consumers are analyzing the bigger value of the brands they support.
It used to be that shareholder value was valued highest above all else, but as people like [BlackRock CEO and Chairman] Larry Fink started identifying purpose and, this past January, sustainability, as key corporate traits, you’re seeing things start to turn, especially at major companies that have to consider big investment.
The market is signaling that sustainability and purpose needs to be embedded into whatever you’re doing. For big companies, it reads: “If you’re not thinking about this ethos, we’re not investing in you.” Luxury companies need to pay attention to this and make it a pillar of their business.
The shift from shareholder to stakeholder also has to do with where governments are globally. Governments are no longer providing that general leadership that consumers expect, so corporations are taking over that long-view strategy. Society is turning to the private sector to respond to these issues and that’s why I’m excited to work with who we’re working with—we can solve issues that resonate widely.
What do you see as the biggest barrier for companies looking to make a real impact with their sustainability and conservation efforts?
Sustainability needs to be a corporate pillar and leadership of that pillar needs to be from the top. If you have a board, it needs to be a board-level, top-down plan. The reason why is that executive teams come and go, but a constant push toward sustainability and inclusion drives vision and creates culture.
What surprises companies when they work with your team to lower their plastic pollution footprint?
Once the priority is established, even with regular company turnover, innovation blossoms. If you give employees the signal that sustainability is core to your company—that you’re looking for answers—you’ll see small changes happen throughout the organization.
What is a major myth about the role of plastic in the environment?
The biggest one is that we can’t recycle our way out of this global crisis. Since the 1971 Earth Day introduction of the “Crying Indian” PSA, companies that package their products in disposable plastic have urged people to recycle the packaging, relentlessly blaming plastic pollution on consumers, as evidenced by the PSA’s tagline “People start pollution—people can stop it.”
After almost 50 years, recycling rates and markets for post-consumer plastic remain dismal, but the myth that recycling is the answer, and plastic pollution is the consumer’s fault, is pervasively pedaled to the masses. This industry-driven, head in the sand mantra stymies the much-needed development of a total paradigm shift.
Also, there’s no “island of plastic” twice the size of Texas out in the Pacific where one can easily pick up plastic. Instead, plastic pollution flows out to sea, drifting offshore and concentrating in vast oceanic currents called gyres. When you’re out in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre, unless you run into derelict fishing gear, which is designed to survive harsh oceanic conditions, most of the plastic is hard to see because it has fragmented into microplastics smaller than a grain of rice. An endless blue ocean is what you observe, but when you look closely, you can see colorful pieces of plastic floating on the surface, as well as throughout the water column, which is an entirely different conversation altogether.
In your opinion, what is the single biggest environmental concern today? And what can we do to fix it?
It’s three-pronged and each connects together: the climate crisis, the global waste crisis of plastic pollution, and the accelerating loss of biodiversity.
The leading cause of the climate crisis is the burning of fossil fuels that creates greenhouse gas emissions. The secondary leading cause of the climate crisis is deforestation. Our planet’s natural carbon sinks (oceans and forests) can’t absorb the immense increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fueled by these two major factors, leading to the conditions that cause climate change. Plastic production almost certainly contributes to these emissions too.
What brings it back full circle is the amount of plastic leaking into the environment. The adverse impact on biodiversity can be found everywhere from the Mariana Trench and Arctic sea ice, to the stomachs of marine and land animals and to your dinner plate. While ingestion and entanglement are obvious impacts, research is still nascent on nanoplastics which can cross the blood-brain barrier and much remains unknown.
Consumers have made it clear that they’re concerned about all of this and it provides great opportunities for consumers and companies to partner to recreate a marketplace of products and ideas. We can rise to this challenge. We just need to look at the problems differently.