Our packaging is over 99% plastic-free. But is this a good thing?
Since way back in 2015, before Blue Planet and before ‘single-use’ was a fixture in everyone’s vocabularies, we’ve been on a mission to tackle plastic pollution. We didn’t fully understand the scale of the marine-plastic crisis – in a sense, we still don’t, indeed nobody does – but we knew it was serious, we saw the plastic accumulating on beaches and elsewhere in the environment, and we didn’t want our packaging to join it.
And we’ve done alright, even if we do say so ourselves. Last year, IFG’s outbound packaging was 99.81% plastic-free. And yes, we’re working on the other 0.19%.
We’re proud of this statistic, which is unrivalled in the online-retail sector. The vast majority of our competitors are still dispatching products in plastic mailing bags, at least partly in a misguided attempt to cut costs (it doesn’t). But on its own, shorn of context and held aloft as a sign of our sustainable credentials, a number tells only a small part of the story. It doesn’t convey the complexity of the problems our industry faces, and it’s vulnerable to attack.
If we don’t use plastic then what do we use, and what’s so terrible about plastic in the first place? What does ‘outbound packaging’ even mean, anyway? And why, in the face of increasingly vocal (if not always particularly coherent) criticism from plastic-packaging advocates, do we persist in our efforts to move away from our reliance on plastic?
We thought it was about time we answered some of these questions, and asked a few of our own.
Packaging: what’s the point, and what’s the problem?
The equation isn’t a simple one of plastic always being bad, or of alternatives always being better – it’s not always desirable in environmental terms, nor feasible in logistical ones, to eliminate plastic entirely from the packaging process. What definitely is bad, as a general rule, is plastic ending up in the sea, and this is our starting point.
So our stance is pragmatic, and our packaging policy is just one component of a broader sustainability policy drawn up to address a broader environmental prospectus. The packaging part of it can be summed up more or less as follows: cut down on plastic where we can, and try to contain it in a ‘closed loop’ where we can’t. This means keeping it out of the public sphere, because once it gets there we have no way of controlling what happens to it.
Some form of packaging is necessary to protect the product inside it, and given the resources required to make the average product, any packaging that fails to keep it safe can’t be considered sustainable in any meaningful sense. You may reduce your impact in one area (one less piece of plastic packaging), but you risk increasing it in another by an order of magnitude (a damaged product being thrown away, a new one having to be made in its place, etc.).
For our own packaging, we’ve opted for a natural solution. This, by the way, is the aforementioned outbound packaging, which goes on top of the ‘inbound packaging’ – invariably individual poly bags – in which products arrive at our warehouse.
So, instead of plastic mailing bags we use recycled cardboard boxes, cut to size by our custom packaging machine (thus reducing both waste and lorry-loads on the road), padded out (where necessary) with plastic-free ‘void fill’, and sealed with gum tape.
Natural fibre thus makes up 99.81% of our packaging. 94.44% has been recycled; the vast majority (82.6%) is both recycled and Forest Stewardship Council-certified by the Rainforest Alliance.
But some people suggest we’re barking up the wrong FSC-certified tree. The plastics industry is fighting back.
The case for plastic
The case for plastic packaging tends to rest on two main points, both of them relating to energy consumption and both valid in and of themselves. First, plastic requires relatively little energy to manufacture; second, it is relatively light, which means less energy is used in transportation.
Energy requires the burning of fossil fuels, which is largely responsible for climate breakdown, one of the apex environmental issues we’re facing. From this narrow perspective, plastic all of a sudden becomes the most environmentally responsible packaging material to use, not the least.
The perspective is narrow because it assumes environmental impact is limited to just one or two stages in a process that in reality begins with the extraction of raw materials and doesn’t end until the product has biodegraded (which, in the case of polyethylene, may be never).
It’s narrower still because it allows for just one mechanism of environmental impact, with a single harmful outcome (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions) caused in a single way (e.g. energy consumption). The fact that, leaving energy consumption to one side, fossil fuels are converted into plastic by a chemical process which also emits greenhouse gases, is just one of many key details overlooked.
There are further complicating factors. It isn’t strictly true, for instance, to say that energy requires the burning of fuels, even if that’s what it often involves. Most of the energy used in EU production of natural fibres, for instance, is renewable, and in our case we’re working with our suppliers to phase out non-renewable energy entirely.
Further, if plastic packaging requires less energy to transport on a mile-by-mile basis, this counts for little if it has to be transported much further. According to the Environment Agency, LDPE poly bags travel on average 22.46km in their journey from production to retailer – nearly 20 times further than their natural-fibre equivalents.
All of this is carefully omitted in the case put forward for plastics. The energy demands are lower, so plastics contribute less to global warming, end of story.
Who’s making the argument for plastic? Mostly it’s the very people manufacturing the plastic in the first place. These are the same people, by the way, behind the fossil fuel industry (99% of plastic is derived from fossil fuels), and behind concerted efforts to deny or downplay the significance of climate breakdown.
At the very least this should make us skeptical of their newfound concern for the environment. It also gives us a clue as to the primary tactic we should expect from them: namely wrapping the issue at hand in additional layers of confusion, most of it synthetic. Thus the covid crisis has been used as an opportunity to push back against anti-plastic legislation and to demonise reusables as unhygienic and unsafe, despite the lack of scientific evidence to back any of this up.
That said, customers and brands are right to be wary of knee-jerk anti-plastic sentiment, and of ill-considered solutions that create more problems than they solve. It’s true that the law of unintended consequences holds particular sway in the packaging domain.
Take so-called ‘bioplastics’, touted by many as environmentally friendlier alternatives to their synthetic counterparts. Their introduction to the supply chain hasn’t been without complications. Putting the rest of their lifecycle to one side, some are liable to biodegrade prematurely, to the detriment of the product they were supposed to protect; others to biodegrade belatedly or not at all, to the detriment of the environment they were supposed to protect.
But this doesn’t demonstrate the futility of bioplastics, or the superiority of plastics tout court. It demonstrates the limitations of the current technology, and the unsuitability of certain materials in certain situations.
The broader picture
What it demonstrates, in fact, is precisely the need to consider the broader picture – to look at the lifecycle of a given material from start to finish; to bear in mind the many different metrics and mechanisms of environmental degradation; and to work towards a holistic approach to sustainability that doesn’t try to isolate one aspect of an entire planet’s ecosystem while ignoring all the others. Crucially, such an approach would understand that these different aspects don’t operate in isolation, but are inextricably interwoven almost by definition.
This infographic provides a general overview of the different stages in the life cycles of LDPE plastics and their natural-fibre counterparts, and of the various environmental costs incurred along the way. It hopefully illustrates some of the thinking behind our packaging policy, and some of the ways we’ve been trying to improve it.
What is the marine plastic crisis?
So far we’ve barely spoken about the marine plastic crisis. As a company whose focus is outdoor pursuits and the enjoyment of nature, we encounter it regularly; and wherever it ranks in a hypothetical league table of environmental catastrophe, we think it’s worthy of attention.
More to the point, we believe it’s the issue that one way or another our packaging policy will affect most directly, and thus where it can have the biggest positive impact. Packaging accounts for a very small percentage of a garment’s carbon footprint; by contrast, its share of the contribution to the marine plastic crisis is huge.
Here are a few bitesize facts you may nonetheless struggle to digest.
- 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, equivalent to the weight of the entire human race – New Plastic Economy
- 40% of today’s global plastic waste ends up in the environment – PEW
- Every year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean, though some sources have this amount even higher. According to a recent report led by the universities of Oxford and Leeds, 11 million tonnes of plastic leaked into the ocean in 2016 – a figure that will reach 29 million by 2040 if present trends continue – PEW
- Taking even the more conservative estimate, this is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. If you’re an averagely fast reader, that’s over 6 truckloads since you started reading this article – New Plastic Economy
- By 2030 it will be two truckloads of plastic dumped in the sea per minute, and by 2050 it will be four – New Plastic Economy
- The ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish by 2025, and more plastic than fish by 2050 – New Plastic Economy
- Plastic pollution poses an existential threat to 700 marine species (ref)
- Plastic is found in the stomachs of more than 90% of the world’s sea birds (ref), and more than half of the world’s sea turtles (ref)
- A study of the gastro-intestinal tracts of 22 sperm whale carcasses washed up on the North Sea coast in early 2016 discovered debris including netting, ropes, foils, packaging material and a part of a car. 25kg of debris were retrieved from one animal alone (ref)
- Plastics in the ocean attract toxins, both naturally occurring ones and those we’ve put in the ocean ourselves. This creates high concentrations of toxicity that can contaminate food chains and disrupt ecosystems (ref)
- Plastics are designed to be persistent. Some suggest they will last for 300-400 years, some suggest thousands, others suggest forever – but plastic’s not been around long enough for us to actually know.
A holistic approach
There is no silver-bullet solution when it comes to packaging, nor to sustainability in general – no one-size-fits-all programme that makes equal sense in all situations.
It may be a platitude to say that different companies have different priorities, face different challenges, and are best equipped to deal with them in different ways. Still, it’s undoubtedly true. We’ve decided that our approach is the right one for us, but we don’t claim it’s necessarily the right one for everyone.
As our impact isn’t limited to packaging, neither is our approach. Last year, just over 90% of our electricity came from renewable energy – 18.86% was generated by our very own solar PV system, after we quadrupled the number of panels at the start of the year.
We’re also partnered with Protect Our Winters UK, a non-profit that facilitates positive climate action by harnessing the collective bargaining power of the action-sports industry. Together we’re in the process of drafting a pledge that we’ll be pushing the 1500+ brands we work with to sign.
Here, we’ve found that our intermediary position between brand and consumer can be leveraged to bring about deeper and further-reaching change within the industry on the subject of plastic pollution. We can give brands the confidence to provide a more environmentally sound product, and consumers the confidence to buy it; make stipulations as to what’s brought into our warehouse, and how; then actively help brands and distributors to meet these criteria, by drawing on our own experiences and using our economies of scale.
And here we come to a fundamental point. Environmental issues are rarely exclusive of one another, and the common denominator in both the climate crisis and the marine plastic crisis is the production and consumption of fossil fuels.
Oil companies, anticipating a decline in fossil fuel consumption, and seeking to augment the diminishing returns available from fracking, have been actively driving the plastics boom. The World Economic Forum expects plastic production to double by 2040: ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, Saudi Aramco, Sinopec, Qatar Petroleum – all either own, operate, or are invested in plastics infrastructure.
ExxonMobil is one of the world’s biggest plastic producers; BP, in its 2018 ‘Energy Outlook’, was emphatic about ‘non-combusted use of fuels’ becoming ‘the main source of demand growth for oil and gas’. Already in 2017, petrochemical feedstock accounted for roughly 12 percent of total demand for oil.
Since then, following the rise of fracking in the US and the subsequent fall in natural-gas prices, these companies and others like them have built or started building hundreds of new chemical plants, known as ‘ethane crackers’. Their sole purpose is to wrest additional revenue from the superabundant natural gas flooding the market – by converting ethane, one of its main components, into ethylene (an instance of what the writer Rebecca Altman has dubbed ‘frackaging’).
The link, then, isn’t just incidental – each arm of the industry is pivotal to the other’s future. Without the operational, commercial, and political clout of the oil companies, plastic production on such an overwhelming scale wouldn’t be viable. And without plastic production, oil companies would be struggling even harder to prolong their existence and to justify the continued extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.
As the Maldives go gradually under, and as poisoned cetaceans wash up on the oil-swamped shores of Mauritius, plastics are helping keep a decadent, damaging, and increasingly uneconomical industry afloat. Stop using them and you’re fighting climate change. Switch to renewable electricity, and you’re fighting marine plastic pollution. For the sake of the planet, it’s vital that we see and understand that connection.