By Suzy Greenwood
2018 is the year we finally woke up to the problem of single use plastic. Last year’s ‘Blue Planet’ series is often attributed as the (plastic)-straw that broke the camels back, highlighting the catastrophic damage plastic waste is doing to our oceans and sea life. Since then there has been a wave of initiatives and campaigns dominating our headlines, and action on plastics has gained real-world momentum.
It’s a feat that took a whole-system effort: government, business and society coming together to make the change. From the mandated 5p charge on single-use plastic bags creating an 86% reduction, to coffee chains following Pret A Manger’s lead in offering a discount for reusable coffee cups, to global brands like adidas and Patagonia creating desirable products made from recycled plastic, it’s now a-la-mode to think about, talk about and act on the war on plastics.
Clearly there’s a great deal that needs to be done to reverse decades of damage – redesigning supply chains to replace or reuse plastic, cleaning up our beaches and oceans, changing behaviour on plastic use at a mass scale – but it doesn’t seem overblown to say that in the UK at least, we’ve overcome the first hurdle and awoken public and societal consciousness.
How much of a role has communications had in helping this happen? Can it be replicated across other issues so desperately in need of action? And if so what can other people and planet focused campaigns learn from those who have helped channel momentum on plastics?
Here are my seven key takeaways:
1) Make it relatable
Everyone knows what plastic is: we can see it, feel it, touch it. Climate change on the other hand, is hugely complicated. We understand that this summer was hotter than last, and we read about devastating typhoons and tsunamis, but unless they actually affect us directly, we struggle to relate. The communications industry needs to find ways of extracting the human stories, real-world success cases and touchpoints to engage the public and spur them into action.
2) Use impactful imagery
From Justin Hofman’s award-winning photograph of a seahorse swimming with a discarded cotton bud, to the National Geographic’s plastic ‘iceberg’ front cover, impactful imagery has helped the fight against single use plastics break into the public’s consciousness. What’s striking here is that these images are of a single seahorse, a single plastic bag; not the large-scale destruction so often used to try to convey environmental issues. A singular image, tapping into the heart of the problem, hits home much more and avoids the curse of being “too big an issue for me to worry about”.
3) Quantify the challenge
By 2050 there will be more single use plastic waste than fish in our oceans. This horrifying statistic from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, first shared at 2016’s World Economic Forum, put a single number on the plastics problem. There is a multitude of competing figures across the energy, transport and infrastructure sectors, and from climate scientists, human rights advocates and cause campaigners, but no other issue has one unifying statistic that serves to quantify the scale of the challenge in simple, understandable language.
4) Engage broadcasters
Following 2017’s ‘Blue Planet’, this month the BBC broadcast ‘Drowning in Plastic’, takes a deeper look at the damage plastic waste is causing our oceans. Sky’s Ocean Rescue campaign has also succeeded in educating and engaging its viewers on plastic waste. These programmes and initiatives are accessible, explaining the issues in simple terms, and reaching the public in primetime slots. ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ did the same for cheap clothing, airing 9pm on a Monday on BBC One. And it’s welcome news that next year the BBC will be showing their first primetime film on climate change since 2007. ‘Two Degrees’ is part of a week-long series of environmentally themed programmes expected in March 2019. Many will question why it’s taken quite so long, but this is a positive step towards making environmental and climate related programming mainstream.
5) Make it actionable
Campaigns around reusable coffee cups and avoiding plastic straws are successful because they require small everyday changes. It feels doable, and without major sacrifice. There is a plethora of simple lifestyle swaps that can have an equally positive impact on our transport, energy, food, fashion and homes. Do Nation (wearedonation.com) is a particularly good platform at engaging the public to pledge small steps that add up to creating collective impact. Behavioural science has a huge role to play here, and one communicators should tap into whenever possible.
6) Rally together
From Instagram influencers to celebrity campaigners, the plastics problem now enjoys a wealth of high-profile supporters. Being a single-issue, simple to understand and actionable problem has helped rally support, whereas too often other worthy causes suffer from competing world views. Other campaigns would do well to focus on what unites rather than what divides them, and be as inclusive as possible to educate the wider public on the bigger picture.
7) Put creativity at the centre
Whether it’s creating an entire island out of plastic waste as LADbible did with Trash Isles, a global game of #BeatPlasticsPollution tag speared by the UN and championed by a host of celebrities for World Environment Day, or petitioning Unicode to remove their single-use plastic cup emoji from our keyboards as Sky did, there is no shortage of creative campaigns designed to engage the public with the issue of plastic waste. Of course, there are many equally impressive campaigns on all sorts of social and environmental issues, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that creativity can generate great ideas, that galvanise opinion and result in real-world change.
(Photo credit: Justin Hofman, National Geographic’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
Suzy Greenwood is a Senior Associate Director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies London, and a Founding Partner of H+K Better Impact. Better Impact is a performance strategy, building on H+K’s purpose model. Framed around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the initiative is designed to empower and enable brands to have a better impact on people and the planet.