Sian Sutherland: Will business leaders save the world?

Sian Sutherland, founder of A Plastic Planet, on why business has the power to change the world

The great European cathedrals of the Middle Ages were built in time spans that stretched beyond the individual. Often constructed by a single family of master masons, the grandfather laid the foundations, the father raised the structure and the son added the final flourishes. No single person saw the process all the way through, but all worked towards a common goal that was – literally and metaphorically – bigger than them.

The idea of ‘Cathedral Challenges’ is gaining traction in the 21st century as humanity seems to face global issues that require long term, coordinated responses — from economic equality to climate crisis and sustainable development. This is at odds with our late-capitalist system, which seems addicted to short-termism as businesses run on quarterly cycles and annual bonuses, while governments face national elections and mid-terms. Our institutions are answerable to the here-and-now rather than the long view.

‘There’s a huge amount of rhetoric when it comes to plastic pledges and newspaper headlines, but how much actual change have we seen?’ asks Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of A Plastic Planet, during a conversation with The Upside for the company’s podcast Frontiers. ‘There’s been a huge shift in consumer sentiment and yet the statistics show that plastic use in supermarkets is actually increasing,’ she continues, pointing to a 2019 study from the Environmental Investigation Agency.

For Sutherland and her co-founder Frederikke Magnussen, the answer lies not with governments or consumers but firmly with business and industry. ‘This is not a shopper problem, this is not a pollution problem. I don’t even see this as a waste problem: it’s a production problem,’ Sutherland explains.

The problem for many bigger companies is that they have a deep but very narrow knowledge. And to be honest, a deep but narrow responsibility.

Having come to the issue of plastics relatively late in her career after running a portfolio of entrepreneurial businesses, her eureka moment was while working to promote the 2016 documentary A Plastic Ocean. ‘Here we were, showing people a film that was going to make them feel angry and scared and very guilty, and yet the next day they were going to go to the supermarket and they would have very little option but to buy plastics,’ she explains.

Because Sutherland’s background was in business rather than NGOs or policy, her instinct was to reach for the toolkit she had to hand. ‘Business has the power to change the world,’ says Sutherland. ‘Governments alone aren’t going to cut it – they’re unwieldy, massively impacted by lobbyists, very guilty of short-term thinking. And the public are absolutely disempowered to create change, however much they may want to. People have to buy what they are sold so it’s the job of industry to sell something different.’ It was this shared conviction that led The Upside to team up with Plastic Planet on a special workshop at the EDIE Sustainability Leaders Forum, where they launched the active change framework R.I.S.E. (standing for: Rebel alliance; Integrating with business; Storytelling; Education).

This perspective on shifting the responsibility for change away from governments and consumers towards businesses chimes with the times. Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2019 found that 76% of the UK population believe that business leaders should take a lead on environmental issues (a hike of 11% in a year) while the New York Times declared 2018 the year of ‘CEO Activism’, with brands from Patagonia to Apple and Coca-Cola taking major (capital backed) stands on social issues.

It’s not just external consumer pressures that’s causing this apparent thawing of ice-cold corporate hearts. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers CEO survey 2020, climate change now outranks terrorism and access to capital as perceived threats. Two thirds of UK CEOs (64%) see climate change as a direct threat to their own business (whereas in 2016 only 7% thought this to be the case) and 51% say that new products and services will need to address these challenges. There’s big international variation here, from the very concerned New Zealand (86% of CEOs perceive a threat) to the Middle East (38%), but the trend certainly points towards a higher engagement in environmental responsibility and changing from within.

For me, the climate crisis is the great issue of our time and it’s the real thing we need to collectively get behind, but plastic is a gateway to that

‘The problem for many bigger companies is that they have a deep but very narrow knowledge. And to be honest, a deep but narrow responsibility,’ explains Sutherland. ‘Our job as I see it is to be the catalyst for change by bringing everyone together and asking different questions. Because we’re not specialists in these specific industries, our naivety is our greatest strength. There’s something very empowering about asking businesses: yeah, but why? And so often the answer is: because we’ve always done it that way.’

Corporate projects underway through A Plastic Planet range in scale and scope. One headline grabbing project came in 2018 through working with a Budgens supermarket in North London to introduce over 1,700 plastic-free product lines, making it one of the first supermarkets in the world to create entirely plastic-free zones. ‘You need to have these symbols of real change to empower everybody to believe this is not just academic, this is not just theoretical, this is about real action,’ she explains.

Local supermarkets that demonstrate change in action are one thing, but A Plastic Planet has its eyes set on the major corporations too. They’re working with IBM this year to rollout a global expansion of their material library of plastic alternatives, creating a blockchain verified sourcing tool for designers around the world. They also run ‘plastic hackathons’ with Unilever, taking a major corporate issue (for example, the 46 billion plastic sachets that Unilever creates every year) and workshopping alternative solutions.

‘For me, the climate crisis is the great issue of our time and it’s the real thing we need to collectively get behind, but plastic is a gateway to that,’ Sutherland explains, nodding towards the fact that coloured shreds of plastic clogging our waterways and choking our wildlife is a highly visual, emotive representation of climate collapse. ‘It’s incredibly difficult for us to envision a plastic-free world and people have been hoping for a miracle solution or substitute to come along,’ says Sutherland of the need for a global wake-up call.

For too long, the responsibility and guilt for climate collapse has been put on consumers, but sleepless nights and hand-wringing aren’t going to create transformational change. Of course we can all be doing our bit to buy more consciously, consume less and recycle more, but if the stats are to be believed and we truly have around 12 years left before climate collapse becomes irreversible then we need a mass mobilisation across all sections of society — consumer, government and, perhaps most importantly, corporate.

To hear more from Sian Sutherland, listen to the full conversation by searching “Frontiers” by The Upside on Apple Podcast, Spotify or any other podcasting platform.


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