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Bluewashing Is The New Greenwashing

Source: The Daily Catch/Barbara de Vries - July 10, 2015 in Featured, Politics

Bluewashing Is The New Greenwashing
Image: Barbara de Vries; Original Sources: NOAA/Adidas

On June 29th, Adidas used the United Nations in NYC for an official product launch in the UN General Assembly Hall – a sneaker made from recycled ocean plastic. The launch was part of the Oceans, Climate, Life summit.

Pause for a moment and think about the last time you were in contact with plastic – it is completely ubiquitous from the gadgets we put in our pocket to the clothes we put on our backs right down to the shoes we put on our feet. So if a $20 billion company creates one product made from ocean trash to raise awareness for plastic pollution, what impact does it really have?

Nearly every bit of plastic ever made is still in existence. In 2010 alone, more than 275 million metric tons of plastic was created, of which an estimated 8 million metric tons made its way into the oceans.

Plastic takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years to naturally decompose, but in the meantime it photodegrades meaning it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. This process is accelerated in the marine environment from the waves and sun and the ocean group 5Gyres estimates that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons, is distributed across the ocean’s surface. These plastics break into such small pieces that a single soda bottle could wind up on every mile of beach in the world.

Those pieces are so small they are called microplastics and research shows that these particles absorb toxic pollutants and are mistaken for food by the creatures at the very bottom of the ocean food chain: plankton. Researchers are only beginning to realize the magnitude of the problem these small creatures pose to those at the very apex of the food chain – you and me. Our reliance and use of plastic is a problem.

According to Cyrill Gutsch, the mastermind behind the project, the sneaker is made of yarns that used recycled illegal gillnets, which were retrieved by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Gutsch is the founder of Parley, which is funded in part by Adidas. Gutsch’s objective is to boost public awareness and to inspire new collaborations that contribute to protect and preserve the oceans.

Branding genius Gutsch saw the light four years ago when he met Captain Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd. At the time Watson was in a German jail for trying to board and stop a Japanese whaling ship and his unconditional commitment to fight for the life of the oceans inspired Gutsch to change his own career from merely reviving faltering brands to trying to save the oceans. Rather than taking on whaling ships in Antarctica, he formed a company called Parley and first boarded the G-Star offices in the Netherlands and more recently the Adidas headquarters in Germany.

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

2015 seems to be a pivotal year for ocean plastic pollution. Last March Prince Charles was quoted by the mass media as saying: “One issue that we absolutely cannot ignore, is that of the increasing quantity of plastic waste in the marine environment.” In June the G7 Summit in Germany dedicated an entire session and a manifesto to ocean debris. A young Dutch man called Boyan Slat made news with an invention that claims to clean the plastic from the oceans. Plastic pollution entered pop culture with Pharrell Williams and his company called Bionic Yarn. And here’s Adidas. But will all this media attention actually reduce the eight million tons of plastic waste that end up in the oceans every year? Will it help change our reliance on plastic, change how we make plastic, make us use alternatives to plastic where possible that are more environmentally friendly? What will it actually do?

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

Lisa Kaas Boyle, an environmental lawyer and board member of the ocean preservation group 5Gyres, feels that a product like the Adidas shoe misleads the public into thinking that they can keep on using single-use plastics. “This shoe is not even for sale,” she says, “I know a lot of activists and scientists who need money and partners for their research – so why trump up projects that pretend they are solving the plastic pollution problem?  We are producing more and more single use plastic every year, and much of it ends up in the environment. These glamorous projects will not change that fact. Closed loop recycling, producer responsibility, and creating non-toxic, degradable plastic substitutes for single use products and packaging are the only real solutions to the problem.”

Pam Longobardi, an artist who has been at the forefront of plastic pollution activism for a decade, shares Kaas Boyle’s opinion and adds, “Large nylon nets, like the ones used in this shoe, that are cut into small threaded pieces of microfibers will shed back into water systems and back into the ocean, as even smaller, even harder to remove elements and will infiltrate the planktonic base of the ocean food chain even more.”

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

Did Adidas really create this sneaker to save the oceans or did they merely create a great advertising moment with a good story line? Their annual sales top $18 billion and they manufacture 600 million plastic-soled sneakers each year. To date they haven’t started any initiatives that recycle their own shoes nor have they moved towards closed-loop, cradle to cradle, production. On the contrary, their most recent Boost your Run campaign boasts a revolutionary new sole made from a Styrofoam type material molded into a plastic form, and dozens of their designs have this new sole. Some of their flagship stores even display enormous clear showcases of the stuff, which resemble packing peanuts, as a marketing tool. For this Boost campaign Adidas enlisted Kanye West as their brand ambassador.

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

For the UN event, Pharrell Williams spoke in support of Adidas and Parley and their ocean-plastic baby: the shoe that has an upper made from recycled ocean plastic material and a sole (about two-thirds of the mass of the entire prototype) that is made from the new (not recycled) Boost plastic foam material.

greenwashing

Image: BASF

People write that the shoe is “at least a start” or that it “raises awareness.” But this so-called start was made 15 years ago when many oceanographers, artists, designers, scientists and activists, including Sylvia Earle, Susan Middleton, Judith Shelby, Dianna Cohen and Anna Cummins, began raising plastic pollution awareness. The work of plastic pollution pioneers has led to legislation that bans plastic shopping bags, plastic water/soda bottles, straws and micro-beads in personal care products. It has also created an enlightened consumer who asks questions, who refuses plastic, who wants to reduce her/his environmental footprint and stop whales and turtles from being strangled by nylon fishing nets. In turn, this evolved consumer has spurred a new form of advertising and marketing that’s often called “greenwashing.”

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

Environmental branders like Gutsch exist between the three worlds – the corporate polluter, the consumer and the visionary minds. Parley’s mission, stated on its website, is clear: “Parley is a space where creators, thinkers and leaders collaborate to raise awareness for our oceans and to start projects that can end their destruction… [they] have the tools to mold the reality we live in.” This sounds great because the people on Parley’s list are genuine and passionate about what they do. For true artists, designers, scientists and activists their work is not about profits but about environmental checks and balances and when the number of animals that die from plastic pollution may be close to a million annually, when all ocean fish contain traces of plastic, and the oceans are contaminated by plastic smog, the blue bottom line is in the red.

But corporations are not people. The primary concern of a publicly traded brand like Adidas is its responsibility to their shareholders who expect growing numbers. It’s misleading at best to portray Adidas, whose growth comes from selling increasing amounts of shoes and apparel, as environmentally friendly. Recently the numbers at Adidas USA stopped growing as they lost a large market share to Under Armour, a Baltimore based sports clothing company. In January 2015, Mark King became the new President of Adidas North America with the mandate to increase revenue by making the product “cool again.” The answer, of course, is to find environmentally sustainable material – in this case for shoes – that can be made into cool consumer desired products that is good for business and makes shareholders happy.

Image: Adidas

Image: Adidas

Parley delivered to their client: The United Nations Adidas sneaker is definitely perceived as “cool.” Over the past week its press release spread through the media like wildfire because it hits all the right marketing buttons: Co-branding the sneaker with United Nations gives it much needed legitimacy, since consumers are becoming tired of greenwashing. It evokes compassion since consumers have seen images of whales, turtles, seals, dolphins and birds trapped in bright green fishing line and the shoe appears to help solve this heartbreak cycle. The Adidas/Parley effort is endorsed by many famous ocean warriors and celebrities like Pharrell Williams and Julian Schnabel. That Adidas has the expertise to follow through on their promise was reiterated by Eric Liedtke, executive board member of Adidas Athletic Group, and most importantly, the shoe looks “cool.” Far from a bohemian recycling statement, its design is clean, modern and sleek. However, it is not clear when, if ever, the shoe will be for sale. A spokeswoman for Adidas told The Huffington Post: “This is not a plan, this is an action,” she said. “We did this to show what we are capable of doing when we all put our heads together.”

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

As Kaas Boyle said, these glamor projects do not change the fact that more plastic is produced every year and more of it ends up in the oceans. And the question remains, do these public relations events create change or do they merely assuage consumer guilt. Artist Chris Jordan, one of the summit’s speakers, expressed it best. He believes that we’re all deeply fearful of truly experiencing the sadness of what has been and continues to be lost in nature, through our behavior. And only if we dare to grieve on a scale that is equal to what’s been squandered can we reconnect with our love for nature and re-discover what’s been missing – our wisdom. We can do this together and return to the fundamental state of being in love with our world. “In that space, solving problems will be easy,” he said.

Adidas’ Eric Liedtke, who is also a member of the Parley for the Oceans Steering Committee, said that the Parley/Adidas partnership grants access to Parley’s creative force as inspiration for their products. “We invite everyone to join us on this journey to clean up the oceans,” he said.

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

Following the words of Kaas Boyle, Jordan and Liedtke the consumer should insist that first of all Adidas takes responsibility for all the plastic it brings into the world – from their soles and foam peanuts to microfibers. That they use only ocean friendly materials in their products and create a closed-loop production format. That they stop using single-use plastic in all their operations, manufacture locally and use renewable energy. And only when they do so, can Adidas bill itself alongside eco-icons like Sylvia Earle and Louis Psihoyos.

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

While implementing this, they can start by giving the profits of the United Nations shoe to boots-on-the-ground organizations, which urgently need money for their plastic pollution research and initiatives. It is the research and new technology that may ultimately provide the answer to the plastic problem, but research needs funding.

greenwashing

Photo: Barbara de Vries

We need to do better than simply create a limited edition shoe that, in all likelihood, will return to the ocean in a few years from whence its components came. As a society, we need to demand changes in the plastic industry to adopt progressive solutions. A mushroom-based packaging product has matched its plastic counterpart in weight, strength, and cost. Biodegradable ingredients can move plastics away from their oil-based origins, resulting in a plastic that biodegrades in the event it isn’t properly recycled.

Alternatives are out there and being developed that could be good for business and good for the environment – no bluewashing required.

plastic

Barbara de Vries, founder of Plastic is Forever, first became involved in ocean plastic activism in 2006, when she noticed plastic debris on the pristine beaches of Eleuthera, The Bahamas. As the former design director of CK Calvin Klein she uses her fashion experience to create collections that highlight the problem in collaboration with Barneys New York, The Nature Conservancy, Oceana, Surfrider etc. She has shown at Art Basel Miami, Gallery Diet Miami, the Coral Gables Museum and Mildred’s Lane, PA. Her work is featured in the documentary One Beach and her TEDx talk. Aware that one single person will never make a difference to the amount of plastic that washes up on every beach with every wave, Barbara teaches workshops and encourages everyone to incorporate beach plastic in their creative process.

greenwashing

Photo: Sean O’Brien

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