Four Ways Businesses Can Go Green in 2017
In 2017, to really make environmental change, we thought that we’d extend New Year’s resolutions beyond the individual and put a few to whole industries. True, there are many, many ways businesses could clean up their acts, but the following four tackle major issues and have some traction already, making these resolutions that just might be kept.
Resolution 1: Online Retailers Order More Frustration-Free Packaging
Online retailers have a waste problem. In 2014, 35.4 million tons of containerboard were produced in the United States, according to The New York Times. That same year, plastics made up about 13 percent of the 258 million tons of collected municipal solid waste. While online retailers aren’t the sole buyer of those materials, the demand for online shopping—and thus its shipping material—is on the rise. Research from analytics firm comScore found shoppers now make 51 percent of their purchases online. The New York Times reported the online retail industry doubled between 2009 and 2014.
That isn’t great news for the environment. Even when products are wrapped and shipped in entirely recyclable materials, hauling that excess off to the recycling center and processing it still wastes resources. But all those shipping materials aren’t exactly doing consumers any favors either. With the exception of free moving boxes, no one has ever been thrilled to receive (and to dispose of) a four-pack of toilet paper in a box bigger than their coffee table, or to collect a trash bag’s worth of packing material for a child’s toy. Consumers hate the unnecessary packaging material so much the sub-Reddit r/PackagingFail is devoted to taking pictures of the worst offenders.
Going forward, online retailers could make 2017 a whole lot better by wrapping a whole lot less, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it isn’t an impossible leap. Amazon’s frustration-free packaging program, which works with manufactures directly to package products in easier-to-access recyclable materials, has been going strong since 2008. British cosmetics company Lush Cosmetics has developed a cult-like following by shipping products “naked” (sans packaging) in biodegradable, starch-based packing peanuts. Even slower-to-adapt big box retailers like Target have begun shipping larger items and assembly-required furniture directly from the manufacturer without an additional exterior company-labeled box.
If it can work for the online retail giants, it might work for everyone. Let’s make 2017 the year of the unboxed!
Resolution 2: Gyms and Fitness Centers Banish Bottled Water Bloat
Even though we know how bad plastic bottles are for the environment, somehow we keep buying water in them. In fact, sales of bottled water rose 7.9 percent in 2015, and 7 percent in 2014. To put that in perspective, back in 2010 people were shocked by claims that Americans used 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
Picture any gym chain’s front desk, and there’s probably a cooler full of bottled water next to it, perhaps even emblazoned with the corporation’s logo. It’s ironic, really, because plastic water bottles aren’t even good for you. BPA and antimony (a chemical metalloid) are used to make plastic bottles, and can leach into your water, especially if the bottle itself is warm or used more than once. Both chemicals have been studied for harmful side-effects.
Gyms and health clubs are estimated to have more than 100 million members worldwide, and that’s a number that likely doesn’t include participants in smaller community centers, yoga studios, and Crossfit boxes. While it’s important to stay hydrated during exercise, encouraging patrons to do so with their own reusable containers and eco-friendlier water dispensers could make a big impact in the amount of plastic water bottles being tossed out each day.
In 2017, both large chain gyms and independent fitness centers can do better. In response to an article about Santa Monica’s littered beaches, the studio manager at nearby Corepower Yoga created a December BYOB challenge, where instructors didn’t purchase or use plastic bottles in their classes and encouraged their students to do the same. “I was discouraged at the amount of water bottles I’d find just laying around the studio after class, and I knew we needed a way to inspire our community to be more mindful about the environmental impact we make [daily],” says Lindsey Simpson, the Corepower Wilshire studio manager. Some gyms have made the switch from offering plastic bottles for purchase, and encourage people to fill up at their water station before class or purchase an eco-friendly bottle instead.
Because there’s no reason improving your health should come at the expense of the environment’s.
Resolution 3: The Clothing Industry Confronts Its Plastics Problem
Remember not so long ago when we all went bonkers over microbeads in soaps and toothpastes, and they ended up getting banned in late 2015 (#thanksObama)? Well, consider that training day for a potentially much bigger problem: microfibers.
From a lonely fight launched in 2011 to an influential report sponsored by Patagonia released this past summer, scientists are sounding an increasingly loud klaxon about minuscule strands of plastic known as microfiber and their presence in our waterways.
In 2011, ecologist Mark Browne published an article in Environmental Science and Technology reporting that microfibers comprised 85 percent of plastic debris collected from 18 different shorelines on six different continents. The report also stated, “An important source of microplastic appears to be through sewage contaminated by fibers from washing clothes.” A 2014 study of thousands of samples from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean found microfibers in 90 percent of them. Now researchers are focusing on fresh water, such as the tributaries to the Great Lakes, where microfibers were recently found to comprise about 71 percent of plastic debris in samples.
Microfibers are shed from synthetic cloth, which is itself comprised of plastic—your polyesters, acrylics, and nylons. Recent studies indicate that these materials break down every time you wash them in a machine, shedding between 1.7 and 2.7 grams of microfibers each spin cycle for polyester and nearly three times that for acrylic. The wastewater from your washing machine eventually dumps out into rivers, lakes, and oceans. And researchers have found that these microfibers end up in mussels, crabs, fish, and even birds that prey on these animals, lodging themselves in the digestive system in a way that has ominous implications for those of us up the food chain.
Patagonia funded a recent report conducted by University of California at Santa Barbara that looked specifically at synthetic fleece jackets, the activewear company’s bread and butter. And the company is making intriguing strides in limiting its production and looking to make its clothes more durable. But if you ask me, it’s the fast fashion retail giants that need to be leaders on this issue. Inditex (Zara), H&M, and Fast Retailing (Uniqlo) are all on Forbes’ 2016 list of the world’s 20 biggest apparel companies and are rather infamous for their synthetic (but oh-so-on trend) clothing.
With some forecasters estimating that 98 percent of future fabric production will be synthetic, demand for clothing skyrocketing, and all-natural fibers a not-so-great alternative, environmentally speaking, the fashion industry needs to start seriously researching textile solutions unless it wants consumers to embrace the only environmentally sound alternative thus far: nudity.
Resolution 4: Snack Food Companies Cut Unethical Palm Oil Out of Their Diets
They say millennials like to snack, and who can blame them? When your economic and political prospects are looking grim, you’re probably going to want to eat your feelings a little. But with whatever purchasing power they do have left, millennials also tend to support causes they believe in, making the palm oil debate a particularly bitter pill: It’s likely that many beloved snack food brands are prime drivers of an industry that’s leveled vital rainforest, devastated critically endangered species, and spurred ongoing violence against farmers and activists.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the palm oil industry, as it currently exists, is connected to some of the worst stuff you could imagine. Forced labor, elephant murder, and billowing, toxic smoke that engulfs multiple countries at a time, are just a few of the industry’s reported ills. But while many consumers, armed with this knowledge, might choose to avoid palm oil, it’s not so easy: According to the World Wildlife Fund, “more than half of all packaged products Americans consume contain palm oil.”
Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world, used in everything from ice cream to cosmetics. In a campaign to take on the negative impacts of palm oil production, the Rainforest Action Network built a list of the worst corporate offenders, known for procuring their palm oil from unsustainable or unethical sources. Including companies like PepsiCo, Nestlé, Dunkin’ Brands Group, and Unilever, the list became known as the “Snack Food 20” because of these brands’ broad public association with nosh-market dominance.
“These big, global food companies have the power, through their supply chains, to drive a transformation in the way palm oil is now commonly produced,” writes RAN on its site. “Increased consumer and citizen pressure on these companies is a key ingredient for success.”
Most of the companies on the Snack Food 20 list have taken at least some steps to improve their sourcing and exert pressure on suppliers. RAN keeps an interactive “scorecard” of the brands to show their progress, with each company designated as a “true leader,” a “front runner,” or a “laggard.” Almost three-quarters of the companies on the list, like Hershey, Kellogg, and Unilever, have moved into the “front runners” category for their slow, incremental improvement efforts; but as of today, the environmental group hasn’t named even one “true leader.”
Writing about the snack food business’s palm oil problems for Triple Pundit, Nithin Coca states, “There are time[s] when companies need more information to act. … But there are times when lack of action is the equivalent to allowing atrocities to occur.”
As we head into 2017, it’s time for the people who make our crunchy, crispy favorites to commit to only using ethically sourced palm oil—not in five years, not when it becomes convenient, but now. This shouldn’t be a hard choice for companies that want our business.