Saturday, January 20, 2007

BRAND LITTER

What are Apple, Big Bazaar, Motorola, Pepsi, Kellogg and Pizza Hut in the business of? Selling, among other things, computers, groceries, cellphones, beverages and pizzas respectively.

What are they not in the business of? Selling waste.

If both of the above are true, why are brands leaving a litter trail behind in their pursuit of business growth? In the form of pizza boxes, shopping bags, aluminium cans, plastic containers, hazardous e-waste and more? Our streets, garbage dumps, landfills, water bodies, mountains and parks are full of these and other brands resting in shameful glory. Do companies have a right to internalizing profits and externalizing problems?

This feature is not about brand bashing, even if the title suggests otherwise. It is about a knock on our collective conscience for a cleaner future. And, unless otherwise stated, this is not about just the brands mentioned here but all their competitors and business in general.

The unfortunate part is companies seem to be caring little about this problem of waste. Repeated queries by GO2 to SonyEricsson, Dominos, Nestle, Acer and others have not got a response. Hindustan Levers is happy to talk enough about their highly successful Sunsilk Band of Girls, but go quiet on queries regarding this issue.

Companies may argue they are not in the business of playing janitor, collecting what their consumers discard, but there can be smarter ways for both parties to do their bit for a cleaner consumption cycle. Some initiatives could be:

Bring back that plastic bottle, and aluminium can
Sending out that cola, shampoo, water or cereal in a plastic bottle may be a neat and logistically simpler way to do things, but why can’t companies take back the empty containers post-consumption? It might be an alien concept for Procter & Gamble, but soft drink companies are used to taking back the glass bottles. So why not plastic? Attach a value to it: charge consumers a refundable deposit to be returned when the empty container is brought back. No one likes to throw away even a rupee in the garbage. This practice is already a success in Germany, Austria and many other European countries.

Distribution channels should not have a problem carting these back; delivery vehicles usually have space on their journeys back after unloading their wares at retail stores. Recycling should make economic sense too; it does in many countries already. This would also prevent people from refilling empty containers with spurious material and reselling them as original!

Used pizza and food containers: highly unappetizing!!
Lesser time to cook and higher disposable income amongst households may be great news for Pizza Hut and Domino’s delivering pizzas, but what about the all those pizza boxes getting rubbished? The solution might not be an easy one to crack; a query to Domino’s international has still not got a response. A thought: give customers a discount on a future purchase whenever a specified number of boxes are returned for recycling.

Likewise, there are so many cardboard containers going around for cereals, detergents, toothpastes and almost everything else. Paper might degrade faster than plastic, but it is still adding to the filth. Why can’t it all be recycled? Kellog’s uses recycled paper for its cereals boxes, but one wishes these could go back for re-recycling.

Retailers, don’t stuff your wares, and heads, into plastic bags
How do you feel with your head in a plastic bag? Blue in the face? Well, those are exactly the planet’s sentiments every time a Shopper’s Stop or a Subhiksha hands over goods in a plastic bag. Globally this happens up to a trillion times a year according to reusablebags.com.

The alternative? Contrary to popular belief, certainly not paper bags. As the box shows, these too come at a high price. And have their own eye-sore value lying around. Try some of the following:

  • Offer your customers an alternate attractive reusable bag made of, say, jute or cloth. Charge a nominal amount or give it free for purchases over a certain value. Don’t seek profits on these.
  • Charge for plastic bags. Might sound brave, as you might not want customers dashing off to your competitor. Don’t fret; customers might actually respect you for it. Or get together as an industry and do it together.
  • Train your staff to use fewer bags than normal. Get them to ask customers if they want a reusable bag or a bag at all. They could remind customers to come back with their bags.
  • Put up posters around the store urging customers to say NO to bags.

E-waste: Press R to abort
This is the bad daddy of all waste. Mountains of end-of-life electronics finding its way into rubbish exposing humans as well as our natural habitat to danger. A lot of global and local e-waste is taken apart for recycling in India, the jury is still out on its safety procedures. While many of the multinationals have a take-back policy in some countries, it is either not happening in India or lip service is being paid. Motorola has some collection centres in the country, but they seem to be guarding these like some nuclear installations; the information is somewhere on their website but their dealers and call centres had no idea what GO2 is talking about when we called to inquire about such programs.

The Why of all of the above
Of course, nobody can force you to take any of these measures. But would it not make sense to take these before civil society and legislators take a fancy to them and force them down your throat? What’s more, your initiative in this regard will have positive spin-offs too like:

  • It’s good corporate citizenship. The dividends are everyone’s to enjoy, including you.
  • As long as the intent and effort is truly genuine, use it to improve your image.
  • Don’t underestimate customers. They may actually reward you with greater loyalty if you are seen to care for their, and your, world.
  • Talk to your accountants. Some of it may make economic sense.

The start
The initiative may have to come from top down, though it would be more fruitful to make it more inclusive: involve your employees. Empower them to be innovative in their ideation and action. Make it a part of the corporate culture. If encouragement and support comes from leadership, the rest will move on auto pilot.

Like what GO2 is saying? Where can we send our empty PET Coke bottles?


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