Skip to main content

Report on Business Consumer goods companies targeted at Davos over plastic waste

Consumer products companies including Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola Co. are emerging as new targets for global activism, with green groups blaming them for fouling the ocean with plastic and activists urging governments to regulate them.

At the annual World Economic Forum this week, the bosses of these and other firms like Unilever PLC and PepsiCo, Inc. have been on the defensive, in a way reminiscent of how coal and oil chiefs came under pressure over climate change in previous years.

“I see parallels to coal,” Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan told Reuters after she and Procter & Gamble boss David Taylor had a feisty exchange at a joint news conference at the forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s clear they are trying to not be regulated,” she added.

The CEOs at Davos have vowed to cut their use of plastic packaging through a range of initiatives, including a joint recycling scheme unveiled during the forum. But Greenpeace used that announcement to call for plastic packaging bans and a goal of “peak plastic,” saying recycling was not enough.

About 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into oceans every year, killing marine life and entering the food chain, according to the U.N. Environment Program. Data like that, and TV shows such as documentary-maker David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, have taken the issue to the top of the summit agenda.

Attenborough, 92, was honoured with a special award at the start of the annual event, where environmental concerns were a running theme alongside gloom and doom over the U.S.-China trade war and a slowdown in the global economy.

“I sometimes wonder if we’re in the branded litter business, branded trash,” Unilever chief executive Alan Jope half-joked after he was asked during a panel debate if consumers were interested in the source of the company’s products.

In 2017 at Davos, Dove soap maker Unilever promised to ensure all of its plastic packaging was recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

“Two years ago at Davos, Unilever was in front on plastics. At the moment it’s very high on our radar to do something about plastic waste above and beyond ... the rest of the industry.”

Story continues below advertisement

COLLECTING BOTTLES

Dozens of big companies have made various pledges to reduce plastic packaging, including a plan by 40 firms to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging in Britain by 2025.

“We will roll out new tech next year that will reduce the amount of packaging per kilo,” PepsiCo chief executive Ramon Laguarta said at Davos, adding that Pepsi was trying to move more toward reusable cans and glass.

PepsiCo, Unilever and European supermarket chains Carrefour and Tesco PLC are among firms that signed up to the pilot waste-reduction program unveiled in Davos this week. It will deliver products such as orange juice in reusable bottles to shoppers and pick up the empties for cleaning and reuse.

“We can learn about the business model, and the consumer reaction to this and find solutions that last,” P&G’s Mr. Taylor said at the announcement.

At one Davos panel debate, human rights lawyer Vivek Maru, founder of legal advocacy group Namati, asked PepsiCo’s Mr. Laguarta and the head of The Dow Chemical Company, Jim Fitterling, if they could be hit with lawsuits for the damage their companies had done, similar to litigation against the tobacco industry.

“It’s a difficult question to answer,” Mr. Fitterling said. “The plastic waste got there through consumer behaviour and people putting it out into the environment.”

Story continues below advertisement

The plastic debate has also caught the eye of the insurance industry, which has taken stands at times on environmental issues. Some major insurers refuse to provide cover for new coal-fired power stations due to climate-change concerns, for example.

“It’s not a big reinsurance topic at this stage,” Christian Mumenthaler, who runs the world’s second-largest reinsurer Swiss Re, told Reuters at Davos.

“The mechanism where insurance would be involved would be on the liability policies of these companies. If the risk becomes very big and they get sued – not specifically plastic but any company – for their behaviour, this would flow into our risk assessment and they could start to have trouble getting insurance,” he added.

“It’s heating up very quickly and we are already seeing some action from companies, so let’s see. I would hope they would act quickly enough, radically enough to be a good case of change.”

Unilever and PespiCo chief executives bristled at Greenpeace’s call at Davos for more bans on plastic packaging, saying that the problem called for multiple solutions, from recycling and reuse to new packaging technologies.

Last month, the European Union passed measures to ban throwaway plastic items such as straws and polystyrene cups by 2021. Greenpeace welcomed the move but called at the time for an EU-wide target to reduce consumption of food containers and cups.

Story continues below advertisement

Greenpeace’s Mr. Morgan said the issue could not be solved through industry initiatives alone.

“Many of the businesses behind these initiatives and others are expanding production of single-use plastic and are looking to grow in markets that can’t take more plastic,” Mr. Morgan said. “There’s a real risk that products like this become a distracting side show to generate positive (public relations).”

Brune Poirson, secretary of state for ecology, sustainable development and energy in France, also took a swipe at the companies, saying they should take the initiative.

“Because you’re not doing that, we have to intervene,” Ms. Poirson said. “I think it’s a waste of time, a waste of resources and it’s not being a real responsible organization.”

Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter