If you’re in the sustainability sphere at all, you’ve probably heard about the launch of Loop, a “zero-waste delivery service” from TerraCycle featuring Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, and other subsidiaries that features some of the biggest brands in food and personal care switching over to reusable packaging. They’ll be launching pilot schemes in Paris and New York this spring.
Most people are excited. I… am not.
To me, the Loop conversation just highlights a fundamental divide within the zero waste community – and beyond that, a fundamental misunderstand about what zero waste is. Those who think that we can “fix” the current system vs. those who think the system is so badly broken and exploitative we need to fundamentally change it.
what is loop?
No doubt leap-frogging off the back of how trendy delivery services and sustainability has become, Loop will offer delivery of food and home goods with 100% reusable packaging. They’ll deliver, and when you’re done you can arrange a free pickup of the items. Loop sanitizes them and returns them into use.
Loop is not: a major player for 99.9% of the world anytime soon. It’s launching in two cities, but the reusables offered in the delivery service schemes will not be available at any regular stores. Even as the initiative spreads, it’s going to leave out people who are typically marginalized.
This isn’t a system shift, it’s a calculated move to make the current system stay relevant. Loop isn’t changing the world; these companies are lining the same deep, deep pockets and perpetuating the same racist, classist systems they were before they introduced reusable packaging.
what does a zero waste economy look like?
A zero waste economy is a circular economy. You can read more about the circular economy in this post, but essentially it’s the idea that we design away trash. Every item will have a purpose once its initial life is over; no more dead toasters you’re forced to throw in the landfill because there’s no economy to repair them.
But the big thing is that a zero waste economy can’t only be about the environment. Too often (white) sustainability is far too focused on the very superficial aspects that affect them. We’re very privileged if we can focus on only the visible aspects of zero waste (packaging) and ignore the bigger issues. Like how Black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution. Or how when climate change truly begins, the billions of starving people will be brown.
What about water usage? What about stolen resources? What about our diets and carbon footprints?
Zero waste as a packaging-focused movement is destined to fail. Being excited about plastic-free packaging is great; ignoring the looming systemic issues behind it is unacceptable and – in the end – dooms us to repeat the same behaviors that got us into this problem. (I’ve talked extensively about how the impact of plastic packaging is minimal compared to driving or eating a meat/animal product diet.)
why isn’t loop the perfect zero waste solution?
When we look at Loop, it’s clear it does not fall into the category of a zero waste system. First, it’s a low-waste option in a linear economy that doesn’t support zero waste. (But this is true of everything – including me! – who uses zero waste in this way!) Second, zero waste is holistic. While the packaging may be reusable, what about the agricultural systems in the background? The transportation? The factory systems? Are those close looped as well?
(Of course not.)
But even more fundamentally… can we trust large multi-national brands to set the standard for what’s sustainable?
As Jennifer Morgan, international executive director of Greenpeace, said:
what the platform will mean for the environment depends on whether corporations worldwide are actually ready to change their business models, or if this effort just becomes a distracting side project to generate positive PR.
Let’s look at a few of the companies/parent companies involved in this scheme:
- Nestle. This could be a whole post in and of itself… But as a brief overview, they use palm oil extensively, have been found to use child labor in cocoa productions (ongoing court case in late 2018), continue to illegally bottle water in drought conditions, bust unions… Shall I go on?
- Procter & Gamble. Uses palm oil, creates high-minded sustainability goals without concrete steps on how to achieve them. One of their subsidiaries – Always – sells menstrual products that emit known carcinogens and reproductive/developmental toxins.
- Pepsico. In 2016 they were accused of human rights violations in West Bengal, India.
- Unilever. Along with Nestle and Pepsico, they were accused of “complicity in illegal rainforest destruction” in 2017. A member of two corporate lobby groups that lobby for free trade at the expense of the environment, animal welfare, human rights or health protection.
Packaging doesn’t change the fundamental nature of a company.
Let’s look at some of the arguments people have in favor of Loop. Because let’s be honest: surface level, it sounds really, really exciting.
“This is revolutionary!”
Revolutionary (adj) involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.
You’ll find it hard to convince me that an announcement made at the World Economic Forum is “revolutionary”. The most dramatic change I’ve seen with this outcome is that people who formerly boycotted Nestle are now jonesing for a Haagen Dasz because it’s in a reusable container.
What about companies like Plaine Products or Blue Crate who are already doing these things? Part of the branding of this whole campaign is “back to the milkman”. How is a tradition from 70 years ago revolutionary?
“It’ll give people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to bulk, access to bulk.”
Really? A few issues here.
- Loop appears to be rolling out in dense urban areas where bulk already exists. The first two places they’re trialing are New York and Paris, places where those who want and can get bulk likely already do. This also suggests that this isn’t just a benevolent sustainability push; it’s a reminder that classist and racist systems will continue to chose profit over access. (The TL;DR? Same shit, different day.)
- Costs will still price most marginalized folks out of this program. To put it a little more pointedly… how does packaging change that reality? The few companies participating in this program that I could potentially support are well outside the price range of those with lower-income already. How does this benefit them? Many people avoid zero waste because of a lack of education, but there are many who couldn’t participate even if they wanted to. This doesn’t change that.
The system – again – has not been “revolutionized”. It’s been re-branded.
“It helps people make the switch from single use plastics.”
As April of @zerowastedork put, this assuages plastic GUILT but does not change consumer habits. To put it more into perspective, an article about Unilever’s sustainability efforts highlights this massive issue around individual consumption and why large company’s sustainability goals are simply self-promotion:
A closer look at the company’s Sustainable Living Plan shows Unilever is on schedule in most areas (although deadlines are moved about), except when it comes to the environmental impact of consumer use. That is where the bullets on the sustainability dashboard turn an angry red. Greenhouse gas emissions ‘per consumer unit’ went up eight per cent from 2010. That poses a problem, since two thirds of Unilever’s total CO2 emissions stem from consumer use…
People want to consume responsibly but not less. Authorities are willing to go green as long as the public purse does not suffer. And companies are no longer bogey men but part of the solution.
While I never advocate that zero waste is a purely individual issue (remember, that whole dismantle the system thing?) there’s a danger to companies making the consumer feel like they’re doing better by consuming more. This is never the case.
“I don’t use it, but at least people who buy this stuff will be making less waste.”
Again, should the goal of the zero waste movement be incentivizing people to make lackluster choices? While I’m all about championing small, sustainable steps, there’s a marked difference between bringing your own cup, auditing your waste, and actively supporting large multi-national companies with proven negative track records.
Make no mistake: this is, long-term, a setback for all the targets we need to hit to not completely destroy our planet in 12 years. The UN has told us in explicit terms that to slow down climate change “requires unprecedented and urgent action”. Buying into a marketing scheme isn’t it.
We’re not consuming less (the way out of this problem), we’re being trained to associate sustainability with major brands whose bottom line is profit, not meaningful change.
Can large companies actually be in line with a zero waste world?
The short answer is no.
The longer answer is… not really. I hate to be the bearer of anarchic views (not really, though), but billion dollar companies and ethics do not intersect. Billions of dollars means someone or something is being exploited. But during the transition period from our terrible system to a sustainable utopia, here are a few things I could suggest:
- Become a Certified B Corporation. Unilever has lent its name to several conferences but isn’t certified. Why? Because as long as they can set their own sustainability goals internally, they’re creating and managing their own narrative. By becoming a Certified B Corp there would at least be some form of valid external assessment.
- Stop funding anti-environment lobbies. In 2016 Unilever was a member of two corporate lobby groups that lobby for free trade at the expense of the environment, animal welfare, human rights or health protection. (Yes, Unilever works alongside Nestle, oil giant Shell, and other not-so-eco businesses.)
- Do real work on their products. While I understand tracing supply chains is a logistical nightmare for massive companies so some child labor may just slip in there (all the eye rolls), there are some fundamental issues with the cheaper, more widely accessible products. Always pads emitting toxic chemicals. P&G skincare uses a variety of suspect chemicals. Real health and safety issues arise that aren’t mitigated by reusables.
- Provide substantive education for consumers. My biggest issue with all of this is that as of now the conversation starts and stops with single-use plastics. I get it – it’s not in the companies’ best interest to advocate for less consumption, but if companies want to be truly sustainable they need to invest marketing dollars into the hows and whys behind the decision. “Plastic is bad” is not enough.
so what can I do instead of supporting these companies?
If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re a pretty epic zero waste activist – or at least someone interested in zero waste beyond pretty reusables. So what can we do?
- Educate others about the bigger picture issues. The biggest disappointment has been seeing people deeply invested in the zero waste movement shower exclusively positivity onto Loop. While I don’t expect the general population to have a nuanced understanding of zero waste systems, those of us that do should be guiding the conversation beyond what the news is giving us. Use this wider excitement about zero waste as a chance to really dive into the systemic issues we’re facing as a planet. Don’t let the conversation stop here – let’s talk about how we can use our privilege for betterment and not oppression. What can we learn from Loop and how can we apply it to better, fairer systems?
- Support smaller companies already using these practices. Bestowed Essentials for skin and hair care. Plaine Products for hair products. Blue Crate (DC) for oat milk. Any other smaller businesses providing unpackaged goods! Particularly for hair and body products, many of the less fancy options are far cheaper than the commercial alternative, too! Remember: this is not revolutionary.
- Put your vocal support, money, and volunteer time behind local organizations. At the heart of it, Loop is seductive because it focuses on reducing our environmental impact and makes us feel like our money is going to something “good”. Why not actually do that by identifying local organizations and investing in them? From tree replanting to waterway monitoring to litter picking groups, there are a million and one ways we can advocate for a cleaner environment without supporting large multi-nationals. Use your privilege to create access locally.
In the end, it’s hard to say whether the benefit of greater access to low-waste goods will enact a larger growth of consciousness that makes it worth supporting major companies.
No, just kidding. I can say with confidence this is a way to neatly side-step any real conversations we need to have about the fundamental changes we need to enact in our economy to save our planet from destruction. 12 years is too little to be playing games with billionaires.