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Sustainability drives brand growth; inaction risks regulation

By Dr Tony Wilkins - Executive Director - NewsMediaWorks

10 June 2019 4min read

Ocean Pollution

By Dr Tony Wilkins - Executive Director - NewsMediaWorks

10 June 2019 4min read

Sustainability is climbing the political agenda, fuelled by increasing consumer concern about the health of our planet. Brands that take a leadership position on sustainability issues become part of the solution while driving growth. Inaction risks regulation and erosion of customer trust. But voluntary business-led initiatives are already delivering results. Read on to discover how brands and publishers are creating more sustainable businesses.

Business initiatives  

With single-use plastics currently in the spotlight, the sustainability stories that usually hit our headlines involve small changes made by big organisations:

  • Starbucks and McDonald’s phasing out plastic straws in certain countries
  • Airlines taking steps to reduce single-use plastic on flights, such as plastic stirrers and spoons. 
  • Amazon banning plastic straws at Whole Food stores across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada. 
  • Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble are among brands partnering with environment solutions NGO TerraCycle to eliminate single-use plastic. Coca Cola Amatil will have 70 per cent of its bottles using 100%-recycled plastic and its board has discussed moving to 100%-recycled packaging.  


Government action 

Spearheading the government response to community concern is the banning of some single-use plastics in various jurisdictions across the world.

  • As of April 2019, plastic bag bans have been introduced in 63 countries. 
  • Legislation requiring 100 per cent post-consumer plastic in beverage containers is being debated in California.
  • In the EU a ban on single-use plastics will be in place by 2021. Plastic bottles sold in the EU must contain at least 25 per cent recycled material from 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030. Member states will have to collect 90 per cent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2029. 


Incoming change

In Australia, governments are moving rapidly. The appointment of Sussan Ley MP as Minister for Environment and Trevor Evans MP as Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction represents unprecedented national leadership on recycling – it’s the first time in Australia and possibly the whole of the OECD where recycling is now accountable at Ministerial level. With reviews of waste policy now complete they are poised to implement initiatives that drive major change. A key factor in the rapid initiation of action is the China recycling crisis; China will no longer accept exports of contaminated recyclables and other Asian countries are following suit.


Last year the federal government held a review of the Product Stewardship Act and released its National Waste Policy. A focus on product stewardship schemes was included, seen as a necessary tool to help address the recycling crisis. The new federal government is expected to follow through on its $100 million upscaling of commitments made to waste and recycling strategies.


Following the election the Coalition will provide $1.6 million for a circular economy hub, to be developed in conjunction with Planet Ark and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, which will establish an online marketplace to match buyers and sellers of waste.


Meanwhile, state and territory governments are redefining their actions on waste policy:

  • NSW is following its public discussion paper on the circular economy with wide stakeholder engagement and a 20-year waste strategy.
  • Queensland is acting on its directions paper, “Transforming Queenslands Recycling Waste Industry”.
  • Victoria has reacted quickly to the recycling challenge and has focused on several grants programs for transitional support and resource recovery infrastructure.
  • South Australia has published widely on the benefits of a circular economy for the state. In February this year,  SA undertook consultation and engagement to understands attitudes towards turning the tide on single-use plastics. It is about to publish its feedback.
  • South Australia phased out of lightweight, checkout-style plastic bags back in 2009, and now most other states and territories are on board with legislation or voluntary bans by major supermarkets. 
  • South Australia is also discussing a ban on all single use plastic products.  


Working voluntarily: News media as a sustainability case study 

Australia’s newspapers provide a standout example of how an industry can bring about positive change through self-regulation and voluntary product stewardship.  


Product stewardship is an industry accepting responsibility for the environmental impacts of what it produces. For publishers, it forms the basis of the National Environmental Sustainability Agreement, which has been in action since 1991. The Agreement is administered by NewsMediaWorks in partnership with Australia’s newsprint manufacturer Norske Skog. 


Australian publishers were among the first to recognise the need to shift to sustainable manufacturing, transitioning to using recycled fibre in new Australian-made newsprint in 1995. This was possible with the construction of Norske Skog’s $133 million newspaper de-inking and recycling plant at Albury in NSW, a massive financial investment that secured the manufacturing capability for recycled newsprint in Australia.  


The National Environmental Sustainability Agreement is widely viewed as a success story, helping raise Australia’s newspaper recycling rate from 28 per cent in 1989 to 74 per cent in 2018. This whole-of-industry agreement was a world first due to its voluntary status and national scope.  

It has enabled Australian publishers and newsprint producers to tackle environment issues in the most efficient and effective way, while simultaneously building community trust.


By taking a proactive approach, publishers have avoided costly mandated recycled content regulation. It contrasts with the imposition of recycling legislation on publishers in 13 states in the U.S., which achieved lower recycling rates and imposes higher costs on industry. 


Australian businesses take action 
  • The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, a voluntary, co-regulatory not-for-profit industry group, is partnering with government to reduce the negative impacts of product packaging on the environment.  
  • The REDcycle Program is an Australian product stewardship model where manufacturers, retailers and consumers are sharing responsibility in addressing plastic waste. Red Group partnered with some of Australia’s major brands to keep soft plastic out of landfill. You can see their soft plastic collection bins as Coles and Woolworths. The collected plastic is made into products here in Australia. A partnership with Downer and Close the Loop means that soft plastic is now also a component in some new municipal roads. 

Takeout:  As consumers worldwide become increasingly concerned about sustainability, they look to brands, industries and governments for guidance. Leading brands are embracing this concern voluntarily and will reap the benefits of consumer trust and respect, along with the potential to avoid outside regulation. Some, such as Unilever, are also driving growth and profit as a result.


How will your brand take action and retain consumer trust?  

Let’s go. What do you think?

By Dr Tony Wilkins - Executive Director - NewsMediaWorks

10 June 2019 4min read