How an ambition became the norm

Closing the loop on plastic waste at Lipton: How an ambition became the norm

This interview is part of The Terrace’s ‘1.5-degree society campaign’. In this series we ask professionals: how is your organization contributing to the 1.5-degree society? And – most importantly – what can other organizations learn from your experiences? We hope to inform and inspire other businesses to do even more and accelerate their impact. 

One key shift towards a 1.5-degree society is closing the loop on waste. With a growing business there comes a downside too: an increase in sales leads to the production of more plastic waste. Lipton, a hot and iced tea brand of Unilever, has the ambition to become a fully circular brand. Bibianne Roetert worked as a brand manager at Unilever and took a leading role in making Liptons’ plastic bottles 100% recycled and fully recyclable. The Terrace spoke with her on how she took these steps. What experience can she share for other businesses to sustain and accelerate the positive change necessary for the 1.5-degree society?

When did you realize that change was needed?
That was when I calculated, together with my colleagues, the impact of the plastic production of our bottles. It turned out to be immense. Yearly we use 1.400 tonnes of plastic for 60 million bottles. When making our plastic bottles recycled and recyclable, we reduce the CO2 impact with more than 40%. After a three-day conference back in 2018, in which one of the days was totally devoted to sustainability, we became very motivated in changing the course of our plastic use. I also had a personal urge and conviction that there was still a lot of value to be added to Lipton as a brand, which could contribute more to our planet. Only looking at monetary profits did not satisfy me when the plastic pile was growing together with the growth of the brand. Still, there was not yet a concrete plan on paper on what I thought I could do about it.

How did that go?
My manager challenged me to create this plan and I asked him for 2 months to understand the full lifecycle of plastic bottles in order to build a plan on ambitious yet realistic targets. He agreed. During those months I learned about the benefits of using recycled plastic and investigated whether Lipton could start with making all Dutch festival bottles from 100% recycled plastic, which could significantly lower our impact. That is where we wanted to start. While we were still investigating whether we could move all bottles to 100% rPET, we already started our communication during ADE Green 2018. There we pledged to be a fully circular brand at festivals in 2019. By already communicating about this bold step towards festivals and consumers, the ball started to roll faster and further.

How did that feel?
That was a cool and exciting time. We already promised the festival audience to make steps forward, so going back wasn’t an option anymore. Because we had made it so tangible, the urge was really there to get all the (technical) heads together and go for the grail.

It almost seems that you were running a political campaign and you were advocating to create a movement...
Sometimes it almost felt like that, there was such a clear mission. The advantage was that people saw me as the lead on this journey and knew that they could ask me anything about this topic so they could become experts too. There was a lot of respect and excitement that Lipton was taking a leading role in using recycled plastic.

In the end, you – and eventually your company – get the most energy by setting targeted and ambitious goals. Especially when you reach them!

It sounds like a fairy-tale, but no change comes without bumps on the road, I can imagine?
Exactly, the biggest obstacles were the technical implications. For example, there seemed to be a lack of availability of high quality recycled plastic in the beginning and along the way there were challenges with running all the tests in the factories in time. At those times I sometimes worried that we’d had to withdraw our commitment.

Yet, you did not?
Certainly not, we succeeded in making all the festival bottles of 100% recycled plastic in 2019. In fact, all our Lipton bottles in the Netherlands and Belgium are 100% recycled and fully recyclable since Q1 2020. We were the first soft drink brand to realize 100% rPET usage on such a scale in the Netherlands. We are now rolling this out to all the other countries in which Lipton is sold. We notice that the sentiment around the brand has positively changed. Also, we see internally that everyone believes in the brand and its mission, which results in a good and proactive atmosphere. It created a lot of wins in the end.

You now switched to Unox, another Unilever brand, a few months ago. What kind of experience would you share with other professionals working on similar challenges?
First, always try to understand how the lifecycle of your product works. What possible improvements are there to make? You have to gather as much knowledge as possible so that you can put everything in perspective. This is important for every industry, from plastics to meat. Second, pick one point on the horizon so everyone knows where to follow you. And last but not least: consistently keep moving towards that point. And this is easier said than done.

Are there any thoughts/last famous words you would like to share?
Ultimately, a lot of people are not aware of the impact they could personally make. They say: "I think it's special and I understand it’s important, but in my company it is not (yet) possible". I think it is important to motivate people and let them think more critically about what role they can play in a company, and that more is possible than you might think. Challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to challenge your surroundings. In the end, you – and eventually your company – get the most energy by setting targeted and ambitious goals. Especially when you reach them! Mark my words: Ultimately anyone can do it. It is possible in all companies and in all cases. It's about turning your (sky-high) ambitions into actions, as we did by introducing our 100% festival bottle.

In this series, The Terrace asks its network how they are contributing to the 1.5-degree society and what other organizations can learn from that. Last time we spoke with Lipton on how they are closing the loop on plastic waste. The last time we spoke with ASICS about their dare to focus.


ASICS: Dare to focus

This interview is part of The Terrace's '1.5-degree society campaign'. In this series we ask professionals: how is your organization contributing to the 1.5-degree society? And - most importantly - what can other organizations learn from your experiences? We hope to inform and inspire other businesses to do even more and accelerate their impact. 

What if we are not committed to take any actions on climate change and limit global warming to 1.5-degrees? In the future, will it still be possible for people to enjoy outdoor sports in a sustainable environment? Or will having a city walk without the constant smell of smog be unimaginable by 2050?

Reason enough for ASICS to take continuous action: “Going forward, we will continue to act for future generations to achieve a sound mind in a sound body and address the climate change.’’ said Yasuhito Hirota, COO and President of ASICS Corporation, this September. To suit the action to the word they joined the RE100, the global environmental initiative composed of member companies committed to relying solely on renewable energy for their electricity needs in business activities.

We’re happy to see that ASICS takes a clear stance in accelerating their change and impact. We were able to ask the CSR & Sustainability team at ASICS EMEA, some questions on their challenges and learnings in contributing to the 1.5-degree society: 

What does positive change mean to you and what is your biggest, most important motive for investing in a sustainable future?
In the light of a 1.5-degree society, positive change would be the active involvement of all stakeholders that will enable us to fight climate change together. Not only us as a brand, but also our suppliers, customers and end consumers. We need to realize we all play a role in successfully changing the way we consume resources and impact our environment. I believe sports brands can play a positive role in changing the behaviour of people to reduce the impact we have on our planet.

How do you stay focused on your sustainability targets when so many things are changing in society, among which Covid-19, that influences nearly every cornerstone of the world?
This is indeed a challenge. At the same time some of the changes and crises in society like Covid-19 have also really helped people to realize that something needs to happen. So despite the many challenges, pressure on continuity of businesses and the economy, at all levels (authorities, institutions, companies and individual level) there is more motivation and determination to change than ever before. We also see a momentum of people and businesses being more open and receptive to big changes now, that we can also use to make changes toward more sustainable business actions, such as switching to digital services for sports and e-commerce sales growing dramatically. This can boost some of our sustainability programs even in these challenging times.

And are there any big bumps on the road that holds ASICS from going forward and hinder this progress?
For many team sports, people need to come together, which is a challenge in the lockdown situation that people are facing in many countries. However, due to the scale of this pandemic, there is a great push to develop alternatives to that, and at the same time more people are reverting to individual sports such as running in order to stay healthy and sound. Either way, the bumps on the road are not holding us back in the end, only delaying some people a little.

What do you see as the biggest sustainability challenge for ASICS at the moment and in the future?
With Climate Action and our CO2 reduction targets being the backbone of our environmental sustainability strategy, a big challenge lies with circularity. As a product driven brand, about 80% of our GHG emissions are so called indirect emissions and originate from processes that involve the materials, manufacturing and end of life stage of our products. There are still many challenges in truly converting into a circular business model. Some of them are technical and some of them also operational and involves the entire industry rather than only our company and its value chains.

What message would you like to pass on to other companies that are striving to create sustainable and social impact?
Focus. As a person and as an organization you cannot be and do everything. At ASICS, a lot of what we do has started with research. So, we would always suggest taking time for a good assessment. Take a close look at your organization and how you operate and where your – both positive and negative- impact lies. Although you can take a lot of inspiration and valuable learnings from others, you could sometimes feel pressure to start moving on a topic because of pressure from external stakeholders or other parts of your organization, but you will achieve the most impact if your sustainability and social ambitions are truly matching the nature of your business.


Are you brave enough to take a stand?

Being brave can be terrifying: standing up for what you believe in, exposing yourself to the danger of being laughed at and criticized… That is why, when we support our clients to build a brave brand, we always start with a small but incredibly important step: creating a safe space to take a stand.

Brave starts small

A great way to encourage people to be brave is through the “Take a stand” icebreaker. We often use this exercise in our workshops or stakeholder dialogues, with the goal to support a safe conversation, where people open up to each other and feel comfortable to show what they stand for.

We get the room off their seats, clear the space and place colored dots on the floor. Green stands for “I totally agree” and red for “I totally disagree”; everything in the middle is an imaginative spectrum. The most important step is carefully preparing and selecting provocative statements. We present the statements one by one and participants physically move along the spectrum to the spot that best fits their own stand. The moderator of the session moves around the room and asks people to share why they have chosen this position. This often leads to an interesting exchange of different arguments. After a few statements the group starts feeling comfortable to take a stand. The atmosphere is set for the rest of the session.

Taking a stand is easier than it seems

What often gets in our way when we want to be brave is that annoying voice in our head: “What if I’m not right? Will they judge me? What if I fail?”

As it turns out, what goes wrong here is that we focus too much on ourselves – on our own feelings and what others might think about us. But if we picture any of our childhood heroes or role models, one thing they most probably all have in common is their focus on something bigger than themselves. They have a purpose in life: from saving the world from evil villains, to extinguishing fires and rescuing kittens.

The big secret: don’t be selfish

So, shifting your focus to the outside might help you to be more brave and courageous, not only to take a stand, but to turn this stand into decisive action that makes real positive impact.

Brave Brands on the rise

Self-focused people might survive; self-focused companies won’t. Increasingly they are in the spotlights, with nowhere to hide. Brands can no longer afford to simply focus on selling; they are expected to solve real problems for their consumers and society as a whole.

A large brand report by Nielsen (2015) – where 30,000 consumers in 60 countries around the world were interviewed, shows that 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable brand. For millennials this percentage is even higher. Moreover, according to Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse study, 81% of millennials expect companies to publicly commit to sustainability.

More and more brands take these expectations seriously. For example Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), an ice cream company that takes a stand on issues as peace building, refugees, climate justice and the LGBT community. Another great example is DSM, a food and materials multinational company that strives to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals for zero hunger and affordable and clean energy for all. And have you heard of Tony’s Chocolonely? A Dutch company that sells delicious chocolate bars as a means to fight slavery in the cocoa industry.

What do these brands all have in common? They all focus on something bigger than themselves; they show bravery; they make bold decisions that are guided by a bigger vision; they have clear purpose of making meaningful, positive impact.

Bravery pays off

In a recent interview in the FD newspaper, Unilever Europe’s president Hanneke Faber reveals that Unilever’s brands that take a stand grow 46% faster than the rest of the company. In the US, Ben & Jerry's market share is now more than 35%! “By taking a clear position you might antagonize some customers,” says Faber “but the rest become your fans, and that pays off.”

So let’s start encouraging brave

Research carried out for the Brave Brand Rankings shows that brave companies are more likely to be innovative, have great work environments with supportive managers and engaged employees and have organizational structures that promote cooperation and break down barriers.

To encourage bravery we need to create safe spaces where people dare to take a stand; no matter which stand they take. Our tip: start small and encourage bravery around you. Why don’t you try out our “Take a stand” icebreaker during your next team meeting? You can download more detailed instructions here.

After practicing in your team meeting, have your brand take a stand. What is your positive impact? What is your purpose? How can you ensure everyone in the company is aware of that purpose and prepared to fight for it?

You can find out in these cases how we have helped some of our clients to take a stand: Ecover-Method “Brand strategy for the people against dirty”; Dopper “Crystal clear positioning for crystal clear water”; and Nutricia “Define the societal relevance of a baby food company”.

Ready for your next brave step? Sign up for our Brand Purpose Training. Or just pop in our office for a cup of coffee!