Shanghai’s “Closing the Loop on Waste” professional forum on Wednesday night brought together 50 young professionals who were interest in learning about how business was closing the loop on waste.
Opening the forum, Collective Responsibility’s Director of Corporate Advisory Charlie Mathews spoke briefly about China’s virtually unparalleled rate of urbanization, and the mounting challenges he anticipates for future urban sustainability systems. Which was followed by Richard Brubaker, Founder and Managing Director, adding his insights into the informal waste collection systems that operate in China.
To discuss experiences and challenges executing waste management initiatives and raising public awareness for environmental issues, Speakers Becky Cho, Senior Director of Corporate Communications from Adidas, Eduardo Garza (Creative Director of Waste2Wear) and Alex Ho, Founder of Scribble Studios discussed their different perspectives on the topic of waste management and how their organizations are creating products and service using closed loop practices.
WASTE AS ART
For artist and founder of Scribble Studios Alex Ho, the priority was to engage people who would otherwise not be as interested in environmental issues using creative art projects. Scribble Studios’ recent project, “Waste-less Stories”, was a social experiment in which participants used the trash they produced over the course of a given week as art materials.
Each bag told the story of the individual participant, reflecting their lifestyle and dietary choices, compulsive spending habits, and implicitly, what they are or aren’t willing to give up in the name of sustainability. Throughout the week, many participants changed their consumption habits—forgoing conveniences like Taobao and packaged junk foods—as the growing burden of their trash literally weighed on them.
At the end of the week, the participants, who consisted of expats, locals, and students alike, emptied their bags and compiled their collective trash. The results were sobering—60% of the trash consisted of plastic bottles and bags. Finally, the participants used their trash to make art on the outsides of their blank canvas bags, as a way to reflect personally on the experience and to increase public awareness about waste and catalyze discussion and action.
THE HOPES AND CHALLENGES OF FORMAL WASTE SYSTEMS
In contrast, Eduardo Garza, Creative Director of Waste2Wear spoke more on the economics of waste, in particular the formalized economy for recycled materials his apparel company relies on. Waste2Wear is committed to producing textiles made from recycled plastic bottles, a commitment they guarantee through third party certifications and analyzing each finished textile for composition and plastic percentage. Eduardo stressed that the future of sustainable textiles lies in synthetic fibers and that to clothe the world’s population entirely in natural fibers like cotton and silk would place impossible burdens on land and water resources. He touched on social initiatives within Waste2Wear like Plastic Catch, where farmers are paid to take plastic out of the oceans that Waste2Wear then incorporates into its circular economy. Still, throughout his talk, he grappled with the limits of sustainable business and its ability to benefit both stakeholders and the environment, asking the audience, “What is enough?”
Adidas Director of Corporate Communications, Becky Cho echoed this sentiment in her discussion of why sustainability matters to a sports company like adidas and the pivotal role she believes effective communication plays in ensuring that sustainability initiatives are successful and profitable. She emphasized the need to understand adidas’ target consumer and to tailor advertising and communication strategy accordingly, showing the audience a short, emotionally appealing video featuring a sneaker manufactured with recycled material. Still, Becky recognized that it is not enough for a product to contribute a net positive in terms of sustainability efforts—consumers expect a certain level of quality and high performance in adidas’ sportswear that the company simply cannot sacrifice. When asked by an audience member, she admitted that as of now, sustainable options are not the most profitable for companies like adidas but maintained that “In business, you have to think 10 years ahead of time”, a sentiment that reflects the core beliefs of Collective Responsibility.
MAKING HARD BUSINESS DECISIONS
Indeed, the theme of profitable business as the most reliable sustainability initiative ran through all speakers’ remarks. A key component of a successful and sustainable business is its ability to communicate its sustainability agenda simply and clearly.
This involves connecting with consumers on a personal level, using appeals to emotion and reason that demand a better understanding of consumers themselves. On the more technical side, sustainable businesses will continue to face hard decisions—weighing profit, fairness for workers and consumers, and extent of sustainable benefit.
As Eduardo cautiously remarked, “Everything we do—even if we choose the most sustainable option available—will not be perfect. There will always be an option we are not choosing.”