A long-time concern for many consumers, sustainability is now a buzzword across the corporate and political worlds. We take a look at how the big, the bad and the ugly are cleaning up their acts.
PITTING AGAINST PLASTICS
Corporate giants at home and abroad are banning or phasing out single-use plastics in the wake of dramatic cuts to the volumes of waste China imports. Historically the country has repurposed 50 per cent of global plastic waste but this January saw a big clean-up effort against low-grade “foreign garbage” that finally pushed corporations worldwide to clean up their own acts. Most state governments in Australia have now banned thin single-use bags or have plans to ban them, but the bag bans at Coles and Woolworths have been divisive. Outrage has been palpable from both convenience-craving customers and environmentalist groups, who say the thicker ‘Better Bag’ Coles now sells for 15c is actually worse for the planet. Among other major companies on the bandwagon are Ikea, with plans to phase out single-use plastics by 2020, McDonalds, Starbucks, Virgin, Unilever and Coca-Cola, which plans to collect and recycle the equivalent of all the bottles and cans it uses by 2030. Even Lego is on a costly quest to find a plastic-free alternative to its famous little bricks. A senate inquiry earlier in the year reported that we could see a national ban on single-use plastics within five years, but a looming federal election might put political leaders off such a commitment. According to environment minister Melissa Price, a discussion paper proposing a roadmap towards phasing out problematic plastics by 2030 is now open for public comment.
Every celeb worth their salt is endorsing an electric car or at least a hybrid these days, and as their price-point starts to abate to somewhere below boutique, ordinary folk may yet get a look-in. Leonardo DiCaprio is a brand ambassador for Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD and Margot Robbie stars in commercials for the electric Nissan (their fees probably funding an all-electric Jaguar SUV) but energy research firm Energeia reports that there are more affordable plug-in options to come and that they’ll compete with internal combustion cars on price within a decade. Australia’s uptake of electric vehicles has been slow compared to other developed countries but Energeia predicts they’ll take over the new car market within the next 20 years.
‘Fast’ fashion has just as quickly lost its appeal because more consumers now care about its environmental impact. Using an unsustainable volume of water and harsh chemicals that account for around 20 per cent of global water pollution, mass-produced fashion exploits its workers and plays havoc on our air with complex supply chains and cheap synthetic fibers emitting more carbon emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. Each year Australians buy twice the global average of new clothes and textiles; every 10 minutes, six tonnes of clothing goes to our landfills. When the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh came crashing down in 2013, so too did the world’s prior (all-too-convenient) denial of the garment industry’s disturbing state of affairs. Such is the retaliation that Vogue Australia now has a sustainability editor-at-large: Clare Press, the author of Wardrobe Crisis and a staunch advocate for ethical fashion. Of the big name designers so often featured in Vogue, many are now taking a stance, or at least putting right what they’ve been doing wrong, a la Burberry and its very expensive bonfires. Check out your favourite brand on the Good On You app to see its ethical credentials. Dozens of sustainable brands are now putting paid to hemp associations: Ninety Percent, Everlane, Allbirds, Kowtow, Wynn Hamlyn and Kit Willow’s KitX being some of the best. Bulgarian shoe label By Far uses dead stock leather rescued from luxury Italian factories. Even H&M, of fast fashion fame, has pledged to use 100 per cent renewable or recycled materials by 2030.
The ever-growing ‘industry’ of food sustainability is a veritable salad of movements that promote everything from sustainable agriculture practices to food rescue services. Carlo Petrini, Italian founder of the international Slow Food movement back in 1989, puts it best: “The production, distribution and consumption of food are among the main factors driving climate change and social injustice.” Agriculture currently uses 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater and is a major source of its greenhouse gas emissions. The giants of the world’s food and agriculture industries continue to eat each other up and their monopolising (and monoculture) could have a drastic impact on biodiversity. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is finding new momentum via social media platforms, but governments need to toughen competition legislation. Meanwhile, food rescue groups including Oz Harvest last year got a $1.2m boost from the federal government that would help them reduce their energy costs and increase their capacity to store food. While charities are turning away more than 43,000 hungry Australians each month, Australian households, cafes and restaurants throw out more than four million tonnes of food a year – enough to feed 60 million people.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Since China is the worst offender, the latest revision of its water pollution laws this year give some hope. The country is home to 22 per cent of the world’s population but has only seven per cent of its freshwater runoff. On average, one water pollution accident takes place every two to three days, and it was the 2005 Songhua River benzene spill that became the catalyst for amending the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law in 2008. Not only does dirty water discharge into the world’s oceans but water-borne pollutants are embedded in China’s food exports, its agriculture also greatly impacted. The Law on Environmental Protection was modified in 2014 to loosen China’s hold on data and the ministry of environmental protection followed this by promoting citizen participation to improve monitoring and governance, including a compulsory national, real-time online system that by 2020 will publish data about fixed sources of pollution. The ministry also maintains a WeChat account, onto which citizens can upload photographs of rivers they consider excessively polluted.