When it comes to avoiding plastic, committed entrepreneurs rely on a wide variety of concepts. We took a closer look at three innovative examples.
Much of the pressure in the push towards a sustainable future is rightly piled on world leaders and titans of industry. Climate change conferences, parliaments and lofty boardrooms are the places where systemic change can and must originate.
But away from the big stages of politics and business, entrepreneurs are making change by doing what entrepreneurs do best: innovating and disrupting - and doing it fast.
This is true in the drive to respond to one of our biggest environmental threats: plastic. As a consumer society we remain addicted to the stuff, putting great strain on our planet by way of oil consumption in manufacturing, marine pollution and the carbon impact of shipping.
“It’s the entrepreneurs who are finding solutions that automatically create demand,” says Martin Donald Murray, CEO and founder of Waterdrop, an Austrian company that is providing an alternative to drinks bottled in single-use plastic with a range of reusable bottles and cups and naturally-made cubes designed to add flavour to tap water.
“Consumers are much more health-aware and environmentally cautious than you think,” he adds. “The reason we have the patterns we have is a lack of choice.”
Murray, who is equal parts Scottish and Austrian, saw potential for a product that satisfied demand for something more than plain tap water, while avoiding the single-use plastic bottles we use to sell mineral water and other drinks in an oil-hungry, $600bn market.
While bottles may be recyclable, recycling rates vary - and few bottles are made of recycled plastic. Even in an ideal closed-loop system, the shipping of heavy liquids has a massive carbon impact. In the case of drinks, it seems almost entirely avoidable given that we have ingeniously contrived to pipe clean water into our homes.
Waterdrop launched in 2017 and has grown annual revenues from €700,000 to €80m. It taps into the growing market for aspirational drinking cups. Its Microdrink cubes, meanwhile, which dissolve in water, are made of natural fruit and plant extracts and come in a range of flavours including ginseng, goji berry and guarana.
More than 70% of Waterdrop’s sales to 13 markets, including the US, are direct online, while the company also supplies 10,000 retail outlets and 20 of its own stores. Murray says making and shipping the lightweight flavour cubes carries a carbon cost that is a fraction of that involved in transporting water around the world.
“Our core belief is that it makes no sense to sell beverages the way we’ve done it for 70 years - by putting liquid into plastic bottles with sugar and shipping it around the world and throwing the bottle away,” he adds.
While Waterdrop is one of hundreds of companies finding ways to avoid using plastic, other entrepreneurs are searching for sustainable materials capable of replacing plastic and its miraculous multiplicity of functions.
The Princely House of Liechtenstein, the owner of LGT, has been successfully pursuing entrepreneurial activities for centuries. Entrepreneurial thinking and actions are deeply rooted in LGT’s DNA.
Karuun is a German material in growing demand in several industries, including car manufacturing, which uses huge amounts of plastic in addition to metal and glass.
Its founders were inspired while travelling in Indonesia, where the rattan plant has long been used to create a strong, flexible woven material. Karuun uses proprietary technology to turn the dense climbing plant into hard-wearing blocks or veneers instead. They can be used in furniture, car and building interiors, and even to make surfboards.
While some seemingly sustainable alternatives to materials and foods can have unintended adverse consequences for ecosystems, Karuun says that growing, harvesting and replanting rattan can only support the biodiverse jungle habitats it requires to thrive; efforts to grow the plant agriculturally have failed.
“To have rattan, you have to have healthy rainforests,” Karuun’s CEO Felix Wurster says of the plant, which uses trees as climbing frames. The startup’s Indonesian production partner employs rattan farmers whose livelihoods floundered when the material went out of fashion after its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. “We’re giving them their jobs back,” Wurster adds.
Yet, like Waterdrop, Karuun wears its core environmental credentials lightly, marketing itself above all as a desirable alternative to plastic rather than an ethical compromise. “People don’t want to be told what to do or buy,” Murray explains. “They have to have a cool alternative that is fashionable, healthy - and then sustainable.”
Focussing on desirability can also help overcome what can still be a barrier to ethical shopping: a higher price. Karuun sells to manufacturers rather than consumers, and says conversations about cost are also changing in corporate environments.
“A few years ago the discussion around the price of Karuun was always the first topic and the buyer would say it’s too expensive,” Wurster says. “Now they are willing to invest in something that lasts longer and is better for the environment.”
Wurster also says that while he used only to talk to design or procurement departments of, say, car manufacturers, it’s now usually the CEO or sustainability head, whose role didn’t even exist only a few years ago. “We’re seeing a big change happening,” he says of corporate priorities in the new age.
Mona Neuhauss is trying to shift attitudes among consumers in one of the hardest places to kick a plastics habit: Japan. Convenience culture in the country has made it the world’s biggest user of single-use plastic. Neuhauss, a half-Japanese communications and sustainability consultant, who moved to Tokyo from the UK in 2016, founded No Plastic Japan in 2018.
Troubled by the widespread use of unnecessary packaging and other single-used plastic in Japan, she initially set out to offer an alternative to drinking straws, which can be particularly harmful when they end up in our oceans. Her website now sells washable wooden and steel straws, as well as a small range of toiletries. It’s also an awareness platform.
Neuhauss also advises Totoya Inc, Japan’s first zero-waste supermarket. Yet she is wary of the instinct to place the burden on consumers to drive change from the bottom up. “There is no need to put that guilt and pressure on individuals that live within a flawed system,” she explains. “So while No Plastic Japan is all about taking that first step, I’d like to provide stronger messaging for systemic change.”
Wurster says companies like Karuun are well positioned between consumers and the governments and corporations who sustain these systems. “Big companies have earned lots of money the old way and it’s tough for them to be dynamic and agile,” says the startup CEO. “Our role is to show them how.”
For Murray, that means improving funding for startups and entrepreneurs with bright ideas for alternatives to plastics, among other green enterprises. He has been able to attract investment from family offices, high net worth individuals and angel investors - and knows how hard starting up can be.
“We need more grassroots innovation and more money in early funding because there are so many amazing engineers and technicians with genius ideas that never get turned into businesses,” he says, ending our conversation with a call to arms. “Early-stage funding needs to be institutionalized. I know where I’d be throwing money if I were a big fund.”
LGT was early to commit to sustainability; long-term thinking and actions have always been among the company’s core characteristics. That’s why LGT has been working for many years now to further strengthen their commitment to sustainability both in terms of its operations and its core private banking and asset management business. LGT wants to ensure that its activities make a positive contribution to the environment and society. Find out how LGT achieves this here.