Big brands announce slew of recycling targets at WEF; growing gender pay gap; colleges falling short on sustainability teaching, SDG reporting grows

IT FEELS like you can’t move for plastic these days. Not only is it filling our oceans (with volumes estimated at 12.7m tonnes) and our landfills, but – not before time – it is now filling our newspaper columns as well. And not just the environment pages, either. Last Friday UK food retailer Iceland committed to eliminating plastic packaging from its own brand products within five years. A survey commissioned by the retailer indicated that four-fifths (80%) of shoppers were supportive of the company going plastic-free. The OnePoll survey (based on 5,000 respondents) also found that 91% of customers would be more likely to recommend Iceland as a result. The retailer intends to use paper, glass, cellulose and metal, among other materials, to replace plastic in its 1,400 or so own-brand items.

Hot on Iceland’s heels are some of the big guns of the beverage sector, which announced a string of initiatives at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. As of 2025, Evian mineral water will be sold in 100% recycled plastic bottles exclusively, the Danone-owned water brand has announced. At present, Evian’s bottles contain an average of 25% recycled plastic (although, as with many common consumer plastics, every bottle is technically recyclable).

US beverage giant Coca-Cola is promising to recycle a used bottle or can for every one it sells by 2030. Response has been mixed, with some environmentalists arguing that Coca-Cola should be looking more closely at its 500 or so branded drinks it sells in non-recycled, and sometimes unrecyclable, packaging. In response, the company says it will increase recycled content in its bottles to 50% by 2030 (it currently stands at 7%, according to Greenpeace). Coca-Cola also says 59.3%of the bottles and cans that it releases in developed markets are currently collected for recycling. Across all brands, more than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold across the world in 2016, up from about 300bn a decade ago, according to market analyst firm Euromonitor

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Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald’s has said that no non-biodegradable or recyclable materials will be used in its packaging by 2025. All its packaging will also come from sources certified as sustainable, with its preference being for the Forest Stewardship Council seal. At present, half (50%) the packaging it uses comes from renewable, recycled or certified sources. The company also says it will increase its commitment to recycle in-restaurant plastic waste from 50% to 100%. Many of McDonalds 37,000-plus outlets are run by franchise owners. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, Evian, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s join a list of 11 major corporations to have made 100% “reusable, recyclable or compostable” packaging commitments. Others include L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, Unilever and Walmart.

UK eateries Wagamama, Leon and Pret-a-Manger have just announced that they will ban plastic straws. The move follows a similar commitment last year by pub chain J D Weatherspoon. The latest UK retailer to join the commitment queue is supermarket chain Waitrose, which says it will stop using black plastics packaging on its own-label lines by the end of next year. The supermarket has already removed black plastics from two-thirds (65%) of its vegetable and fruit packaging.

In case European companies are deaf to the way the wind is blowing on plastics, the European Commission spelled it out earlier this month. In its first-ever Europe-wide strategy, the Commission has set a target of recycling 55% of plastics packaging waste by 2030. Two-thirds of all plastics waste generated in the region currently derives from packaging. Investment in recycling infrastructure and technology is needed as well, with only 30% of collected plastic waste presently being recycled. According to public opinion data from the Commission, the overwhelming majority of European citizens are worried about the impact that everyday products made of plastics have on their health (74%) and on the environment (87%).

In what feels like a last desperate hurrah, the British Plastics Federation has sought to argue that replacing plastic packaging with other materials will lead to an increase in packaging and a consequent 270% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, equal to 61 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Whatever our packaging is made of, however, the key message is that we need to stop binning it. According to a new study from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, 90% of raw materials used globally are not cycled back into the economy. Introducing a more circular approach to production and consumption, the business group argues, would see natural resource use drop by 28% and related greenhouse gas emissions by 72%.

(See Ethical Corporation’s plastics briefing: Brands wake up to the tragedy of the oceans and  Who’s bending the curve on reusing plastic?)

Gender and pay: not a pretty sight

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IT IS all, at last, coming out in the wash. New requirements for UK companies to publish pay rates by gender are revealing just how big the remuneration gap between the sexes still is. According to a report by law firm Wilsons, the number of women earning more than £100,000 per year is around 382,400. This compares to 625,000 men, a 23% larger gap between the sexes than in 2010/11.

The findings reflect a universal pay discrepancy for women in UK companies, which become subject to the new reporting requirements as of April 2018 (if they have 250 employees or more). The authoritative Office for National Statistics could not be clearer: women, on average, collect a median salary 9.1% lower than their male counterparts. The biggest gap is for skilled trades, where the like-for-like pay gap is nearly one quarter (24.8%) in men’s favour. Male chief executives and senior officials likewise collect a substantially larger pay cheque (24.7%) than their female equivalents.
To add insult to injury, women’s pay peaks earlier, with the two sexes hitting maximum earnings at 45 and 48 years old, respectively. The myth of pay deficits for maternity breaks doesn’t hold, either. A woman starting out at work can expect to earn 8.7% per hour less than a woman who has been in the same post for between five to 10 years. Swap that for a man and the wage of the more experienced employee will be 13% higher. Job loyalty for women, in short, doesn’t pay.

Although 649 firms have reported pay figures to date (and counting), much of the focus to date has been on high-profile FTSE firms. Among those reporting a substantial gap in mean hourly pay rates are EasyJet (51.7%), Virgin Money (32.5%), PwC (33.1%), Shell International (31.5%) and Ladbrokes (15%). EasyJet falls back on the typical excuse that men are better represented in high-skilled roles. The vast majority (94%) of its pilots are men (on average annual salaries of £92,400), while 69% of lower-paid cabin crew are women (on £24,800 per year). The proportion of women in the top pay bracket at the UK airline amount to a mere 10.7%. Ironically, the worst performer to date is a women’s fashion chain, Phase Eight, where female staff have a mean hourly rate 64.8% lower than their male counterparts. The numbers are skewed by the fact that only 44 of its 1,754 employees are men, of whom 39 work in head office.  

A minority of employers (17.7%) actually have the same or higher mean hourly pay for women. The list includes: Tata Chemicals Europe (+11%), Npower Yorkshire (+9%) Unilever UK (+8.8%), Evans Cycles (+6.5%), EuropCar (+4.2%) and Biffa Waste Services (+1.4%). That said, future projections don’t look great. According to a new report by the World Economic Forum, men look set to dominate in industries such as information and biotechnology. Couple this with women’s failure to rise to the top even in the health and education sectors and recent marginal gains in gender equality could actually end up going backwards. Come the robot age it could get worse, with technology predicted to displace women at a higher rate than men (57% v 43%) over the next decade.

A previous World Economic Forum report issued last November estimated it would take 217 years for gender pay to equal out. Female delegates attending the organisation’s annual jamboree in the Swiss ski-town of Davos will certainly hope the trajectory is faster – even if they are outnumbered four to one (79% v 21%).

Campuses, common rooms and curricula  

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“EDUCATION is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” So said Malcolm X. By that measure, the sustainability field could be in trouble. According to an extensive new study, only 1% of those in the UK tertiary sector feel their college or university is doing “all it can” to progress environmental and social responsibility. Stretched resources, it seems, are a big part of the problem. Half of those in the UK’s higher and further education sector who lead on sustainability only spend about 10% of their time on the issue. The study, which was commissioned by the National Union of Students, among others, indicates that three in five further education institutions anticipate missing their 2020 carbon targets.

If sustainability management on campus looks creaky, what about the appetite for sustainability among students? Net Impact, the non-profit membership group for student and professional working in sustainability, now counts more than 100,000 members and boasts 300 chapters around the world. According to its latest student survey, 96% of business school respondents see environmental and social elements of business as priorities, but only 55% are satisfied with how these issues are integrated into their curricula.

On this last point, progress is being made, insist representatives of the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. Backed by the United Nations Global Compact, the global coalition now counts 650 further education institutions that commit to promote the teaching of sustainable business. PRME has just announced a new working group to develop resources designed to help the uptake of the Sustainable Development Goals.

SDG: Serious Disclosure or Guff?  

SPEAKING of which, it comes as a major milestone to learn that 62% of major businesses now reflect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their annual reporting. According to new research from PwC, 291 of 470 companies studied now provide data on their activities in support of the SDGs’ 17 primary objectives. The findings are based on PwC’s analysis of some of the largest companies in 17 countries, with collective annual revenues of $9.4bn. 

According to new data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the private sector is responsible for one-fifth (21%) of global greenhouse gas emissions. The amount of water consumed by private industry as a percentage of total global water consumption is 20% – double that of domestic users (10%). Workers are set to potentially lose out too. In the US, one in six (17.5%) of the working populationis employed by a Fortune 500 firm. The real impact is felt in their supply chains, however. The world’s largest 50 companies have an estimated indirect workforce of 116 million people, many of whom are in countries where there is no right to strike (70%) or where collective bargaining is restricted (60%).

As for those companies that make mention of the SDGs in their annual reports, engagement levels differ. Most worryingly, almost two-thirds (63%) of the companies surveyed fail to prioritise individual goals within the SDG framework. Overall, PwC gives the reporting companies a score of 2.03 points out of a maximum of 5 points, meaning they rest on the border between expressing “ambition” and having actual measurable performance indicators in place. The quality of reporting picks up for SDG goals that have been on the corporate sustainability agenda for a while now, such as GHG emissions reductions (3.42), female representation in management (2.95) and energy efficiency (2.91).

The findings suggest that companies pay more interest to certain SDG goals than others. As might be expected, those given the greatest priority tend to be those closest to business’ day-to-day activities. The list is topped by SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG12 (responsible Consumption and production) and SDG13 (climate action). At the other end of the scale come those issues that companies find harder to tie back to their everyday operations; namely, SDG2 (zero hunger), SDG1 (no poverty) and, in last place, SDG14 (life below water).

Main image credit: Niloo/Shutterstock Inc.
WEF  New Plastics Economy  Iceland  Davos  coca-cola  McDonald's  Walmart  World Business Council for Sustainable Development  PwC  climate  SDGs  Ellen Macarthur Foundation  circular economy  gender pay gap  Evian 

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