Decision maker apathy ‘biggest challenge’ to sustainability action

By Kristiane Sherry |

Michael Barrett and Faye Bartle welcome delegates to the 2023 TR Consumer Forum, and the inaugural Green Shoots Exchange.

The 2023 TR Consumer Forum opened in Vienna today with the inaugural Green Shoots Exchange, which served as a blistering wake-up call for travel retail stakeholders to do more when it comes to tackling plastic waste. 

Sponsored by Cabeau and Travel Retail Bespoke, the session focused on single-use plastics, travel retail’s responsibility in the crisis, and action that must now be taken.

Based on an internal calculation, Ocean Bottle estimates that travel retail is a major contributor to the equivalent of more than 30 billion single-use plastic bottles sold each year.

“It’s estimated that on a transatlantic flight, the average passenger consumes about just under one and a half kilos of plastic,” Ocean Bottle Commercial Director Sam Howson told delegates.

Elena Bloothoofd, founder of Brands of Style and Travel Retail Bespoke, a new platform for sustainable brands in the channel, said apathy was the biggest issue.

“The biggest challenge is actually making the decision makers do something about it,” she said.

“What the consumer wants is choice. And the choice is there on the high street, but there isn’t a choice in the travel retail environment.”

She was joined in the first session by a panel comprising Ilia Bilbie Georgescu, Head of Sales at Polymateria, David Sternlight, Cabeau CEO, and Graeme Stewart, Enviro-Point CEO, moderated by TRBusiness’s Managing Editor Faye Bartle and Head of Events and Corporate Social Responsibility Michael Barrett.

Practical solutions

After a welcome from Barrett, Bloothoofd opened the panel by sharing some of the brands she’s partnered with for the launch of Travel Retail Bespoke. 

KURO-Bō is a water filtration system that she said could transform the number of single-use water bottles used across the travel landscape, for example in airport lounges. 

She also shared details of Lifelong Deodorant, a refillable concept, and Join the Pipe water bottle, a brand that has cut the consumption of over 10 million 500ml single-use plastic water bottles in Dubai alone since February 2022. 

She stressed that the biggest challenge faced in getting listings for these brands, which provide practical solutions to sustainability challenges, was apathy and a lack of stakeholder buy-in.

‘We have an opportunity’

Next to speak was Cabeau’s Sternlight, who spoke of his brand’s partnership with CleanHub, an organisation with partners with brands to see them fund the collection of plastic waste in coastal regions in Asia and Africa.

“We are an aspirational industry,” he said. “We have some of the top, most innovative brands in the world. We have this opportunity to make a change and make it now.” 

Travel Retail Bespoke’s Elena Bloothoofd says apathy is a huge challenge. IMAGE: Grant Pritchard Photography

Recent moves to reduce Cabeau’s own impact on the environment was to compress its memory foam pillows in order to use 43% less cardboard packaging. 

In addition to saving thousands of trees a year, it also creates more capacity in logistics supply chains and saves on fuel costs. 

In a social sustainability move, Cabeau provides employees with a volunteering day each month. “Data shows people work 15% harder if there’s a mission associated with the company that makes people feel good about themselves,” Sternlight said.

“So even though we do give up one or two working days a month, I do believe that overall in terms of what it gives to the company and the employees within the company, it makes it very positive.”

He added that there was a good reaction from retailers on Cabeau’s packaging gains, and that he plans to communicate the recent packaging development online soon. 

Material solutions

Graeme Stewart, Enviro-Point CEO, then shared his company’s work on plastic biotransformation technology.

Enviro-Point has developed a plastic that will biotransform into a harmless natural wax in two years. “If you rub it between your fingers, it completely disappears,” he said.

The material has a number of applications in airports, including in STEBs, luggage wraps and plastic cups.

He also shared that Enviro-Point is now supplying Gatwick Airport with STEB bags which biodegrade and are also recyclable (exclusive story in full here).

Stewart said he hopes the partnership with Gatwick will encourage other airports and retailers to use the biotransformation material to meet their needs.

He also suggested ways of monetising STEBs to offset the additional cost of the solution, from charging consumers to using the bags themselves for advertising. 

Delegates heard from industry experts on plastic waste. IMAGE: Grant Pritchard Photography

Ilia Bilbie Georgescul, head of sales at biotransformation materials firm Polymateria, outlined that the material safely biodegrades by working with all agents of decay, not just oxygen. 

“It’s creating chaos in the polymer chain,” she said, to explain the breakdown. 

The FDA-approved biotransformation plastic materials have applications across carrier bags, clothing and food containers, as long as the item will be out of the retail space within two years. 

For Georgescul it’s about making sure plastics never end up in nature. Her data shows 86% of all ocean plastics comes from land. “114 million tonnes of plastic every year end up in nature.”

Time for ‘Hope’

After a short break, Barrett and Bartlett returned to the stage with a fresh panel of experts from impact partner  businesses who work proactively to tackle plastic waste.

Howson was joined by Sophia Kavgalakis, Head of Strategy and Business Development at Common Seas, Toni Kienberger, founder and CEO of Ocean Material, Joel Tasche, founder and CEO at CleanHub, Ewan Topping, Senior Partnership Manager at The Ocean Cleanup, and Tracy Ross, Sustainability Champion at AerRianta Middle East.

Barrett and Ross introduced a new GTR initiative called Hope (Helping Ocean Plastic Elimination) to compel stakeholders in the industry to do more to cut plastic waste.

“If you can measure it, you can manage it,” said Ross, encouraging retailers and airports to start to audit their plastic footprint.

With critical mass, stakeholders can report their plastic progress to trade associations, which opens doors for positive government lobbying, she continued. 

The panel gave practical examples of how sustainable brands can help tackle the plastics crisis.

“Trade associations will always go to governments to say, ‘give us an exemption to your tobacco restriction’, or for alcohol.

“[Plastic reporting] is a way in which we can go to governments with a positive message and say look what we are doing as an industry to have a positive impact on the environment.”

HOPE has already been presented to stakeholders including ACI Europe.

Legislation is coming

Kavgalakis opened her presentation with the shocking statistic, published in the journal Environment International with data from Common Seas, that three-quarters of people may have micro-plastics in their blood.

Common Seas has developed a tool called PlasTICK, which enables businesses to track and report on their plastic footprint.

“Legislation is coming fast,” she cautioned, noting that publicly listed companies will be compelled to report on ESG measures by 2026. Businesses can get ahead on tracking and reducing plastic usage now.

Ocean Cleanup’s Topping then spoke of his company’s vision to clean 90% of the ocean by 2040 through plastic recovery. “We want to put ourselves out of business,” he stated. 

The non-profit currently operates 19 interceptors in six countries cleaning both oceans and rivers. 

“All parts of the problem need to be solved,” he said, stressing that ocean recovery isn’t enough. “We need to turn off the tap.”

Part two of the Green Shoots Exchange panel focused on technical solutions.

Ocean Material’s Kienberger agreed, saying that clean-ups were fruitless without working on the root cause.

He also urged businesses to get involved with organisations like those represented. “Plastic with a good story [clean-ups] is emotional. It’s a really good narrative.”

Howson then stressed that plastic pollution was an urgent issue only likely to become more so. “Global plastic production last year was at its peak – and it will be again this year.”

Tasche at CleanHub then drew the session to a close by explaining that almost two billion consumers don’t have access to a connected waste management system.

CleanHub was looking to address this by becoming “the AirBnB of waste management” by connecting solutions internationally.

TR Consumer Forum continues through Friday 23 June at AirportCity Space, Vienna.

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