Public consciousness of plastic pollution is at an all-time high. 'Single-use' - now so synonymous with throwaway plastics - was Word of the Year in 20181, emphasising an awareness that's putting businesses under pressure to improve their environmental footprint.
One company to refine its approach is Walkers (owned by PepsiCo), having stated an aim to make their metallised plastic crisp packets 100% recyclable by 2025, whilst launching a recycling scheme in the meantime2.
Yet, is this enough to make Walkers a 'responsible business'? Dr Roshan Boojihawon, Director of the Online MSc International Business, believes there's far more to it.
As part of Birmingham Business School, itself an advocate of curiosity and thought leadership for responsible business, Dr Boojihawon strives to develop forward-thinking leaders for a better business future. Here he outlines his perspectives on Walkers’ strategy.
Does this make Walkers a more responsible business?
"Calling Walkers 'responsible' might be misplaced altogether. To me, 'being responsible' can hardly be justified by a single 'good' act when there is a lot more to it," explains Dr Boojihawon.
"The question is: do we see 'being responsible' as a single act of good behaviour, or do we perceive it as being embraced in everything that the company does? The answer to this question is not very clear, as we see companies acting and taking action somewhere in between these two stances.
"With increased global pressure holding companies accountable for their environmental impact, Walkers may now feel the need to tout their status as being environmentally responsible, which has also led to greenwashing," he says.
What is 'greenwashing' and what is its potential impact?
"Greenwashing is the appearance to limit ecological impact without doing so. We see this in 'all-natural' food and cleaning products that claim to be environmentally friendly, of products or packaging that wrongly claim to be biodegradable, and so on.
"Although laws severely reprimand such practices, companies don't seem to be deterred from engaging in greenwashing as it is the least costly and risky way to appear 'good'. However, such behaviours and practices feed into our mistrust of big organisations.
Dr Boojihawon continues, "Our expectations of what qualifies as responsible behaviour seem to have evolved more rapidly and disproportionately than companies' understanding of their responsibility towards society and the environment. Traditionally, for most companies, caring about the environmental/societal impact of their products/services has always been one of the sidelined issues than a core part of their strategic thinking.
"Walkers' recycling strategy seems to be a fair response and has satisfied the lobbyists campaigning against plastic, but there are those who also believe that this is just the starting point of what the company can do."
Recommended read: How Corporate Social Responsibility creates a brighter business future
How can companies like Walkers become truly responsible?
"It's good to be environmentally responsible, but it's not always easy!" says Dr Boojihawon.
"The fact that Walkers has announced that it cannot introduce recyclable packets until 2025 is indicative that doing so takes time and effort. Changing the way crisps are made or packaged, abandoning established practices in favour of more eco-friendly alternatives, or adopting new technologies can involve high costs and risks, but it is the only way forward.
"I am optimistic that it is possible for companies like Walkers to do even better, but it can only happen if 'being responsible' is embraced as part of its strategy. In effect, it will take a combination of committed leadership, clarity of purpose, and prioritised strategic actions to become genuinely responsible companies that are fit for our modern, environmentally-fragile times," he concludes.
Instilling an ethos of responsibility that runs through every aspect of business is just one aim of the Online MSc International Business, which seeks to give students the tools they need to make a responsible impact in the business world. To find out more, please download a brochure today.
This article is based on a piece by Dr Roshan Boojihawon originally posted on the Birmingham Business School Blog.
1PURDY, L. (2018) 'Single-Use' is Named 2018 Word of the Year, Capturing Surge in Awareness of Plastic Pollution [online] Available at: < https://www.positive.news/society/single-use-is-named-2018-word-of-the-year-capturing-surge-in-awareness-of-plastic-pollution/> [Accessed 29.04.2019]
2BBC. (2018) Walkers Crisp Packets Recycling Scheme Announced [online] Available at: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-45759712> [Accessed 29.04.2019]