A sustainable new wrinkle on those ubiquitous plastic six-pack rings demonstrates how one relatively modest improvement in product packaging can have an outsized impact on global pollution issues -- and help establish a brand as a sustainability leader, too. Ocean plastic pollution is a case in point. Though plastic six-pack rings are only one small fraction of the ocean plastic problem, the new rings provide a clear demonstration that solutions are at hand.
As a member of the AB-InBev corporate umbrella, Corona is the first global beer brand to announce it is using the new packaging, but the story actually starts -- as many do these days -- with an independent microbrewery.
The ocean plastic pollution: who is to blame?
The new six-pack rings cut to the heart of the ocean plastic pollution issue in terms of responsibility. Though often cast as the result of inefficiencies and downright bad behavior at the consumer end, in reality ocean plastic is both a consumer and a producer problem.
Consumer education and recycling programs can reduce plastic pollution, but relying on 7 billion people (and counting) to exercise good behavior on a daily basis is simply not a realistic policy.
A permanent solution will only occur when consumers can no longer get their hands on products that contribute to the problem.
That may not seem quite fair. Nevertheless, when the aim is to solve a problem, abstract moralizing over personal responsibility does not make a particularly strong case compared to viral photos of product packaging entwined around helpless birds, turtles, dolphins, seals and other sea creatures.
The little six-pack rings that could
That's where the new six-pack rings come in. Back in 2016 heart-rending pictures of aquatic creatures tangled up in the unforgiving grip of plastic six-pack rings sent the New York creative agency We Believers on a mission to develop alternative packaging for its client, the Florida based craft microbrewer Saltwater Brewery.
We Believers hit upon an obvious solution: channel some of the massive amounts of fibrous barley and wheat leftovers from the brewing process into creating six-pack rings that are biodegradable, compostable, and safely edible, too.
That's not as simple as it sounds. Creating a plastic substitute that is sturdy, flexible, and biodegradable is a challenge. Sustainable packaging can also add expenses that are unsustainable for a small operation like Saltwater Brewery, unless they are passed along to the customer.
When Saltwater adopted the new rings, it was counting on concern about the plastic pollution problem to help convince its loyal customers to pay a little extra for their six-packs.
Over the long run, though, companies like Saltwater would need to convince other beverage producers to hop on the sustainable packaging bandwagon. Ideally, economies of scale would kick in once demand for the new packaging increases, helping to keep costs down.
Scaling up sustainable packaging
The sustainable six-pack experiment could have begun and ended with Saltwater, but as it happens the co-founder of We Believers, Marco Vega, is a graduate of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia who spent time as a process engineer at Procter & Gamble.
The new rings were featured in a 2017 article in the University of Virginia publication UVAToday, which describes how Vega and his partner Gustavo Lauria drew on their experiences to develop a prototype for the sustainable packaging:
“Within six weeks, we had gone from that text message to the initial prototype,” said Vega, who collaborated on the prototype with an outside engineering firm. “That process usually takes at least eight to 12 months for established companies.”
Vega, who said he has been influenced by the entrepreneurial teachings of Darden professors Greg Fairchild, Saras Sarasvathy and Jeanne Liedtka, among others, continued to rapidly move the idea forward, creating the initial prototype on a 3-D printer and using a hydraulic press to produce the first 400 units.
With the prototype in hand, the partners produced a commercial with Saltwater that included images of wildlife entangled with -- and nibbling on -- plastic packaging.
The response was stunning:
“When we put that online, it just spread like wildfire,” Vega said. “It’s been breathtaking.”
Vega said the video has had more than 250 million views on Facebook and north of 8 billion global impressions and believes it may lay claim to being “the most viral communication in beer advertising history.”
Testing the power of "brand venturing"
The process of working with Saltwater lead Vega to develop the concept of "brand venturing." As described in UVAToday, Vega believes that the response to the Saltwater commercial was enthusiastic not because the commercial itself was particularly clever, but because it portrayed the brand taking leadership to find a solution to a "widely vexing problem:"
“That’s the new way to build brands...We call it ‘brand venturing’: a combination between the effectuation theory of entrepreneurship, design thinking and the creative process.
Show people a solution to a “public enemy No. 1,” and they will rally behind you...It pays to be brave enough to co-create your product or service with consumers these days.”
Advertising and advocacy: perfect together
The brand venturing approach was a winner for both We Believers and Saltwater, at least in terms of raising the microbrewer's profile.
The rest of the story falls into place when you consider that global beermakers are watching -- and acquiring -- microbreweries that are winning hearts and minds.
AB InBev is one global company that has recognized how independent microbreweries can act as a kind of "farm system" for the major leagues of beermaking. The company is not just acquiring them but also attempting to nurture them. For example, earlier this year AB InBev announced that it would provide a new patent-protected, money-saving process free of charge to small breweries.
No, AB InBev did not acquire Saltwater (yet). However, Saltwater's success in marketing the new six-pack rings may have inspired AB InBev to act. Last week, the Corona brand announced that it will become the first global beer brand to use sustainable six-pack rings. The initiative will start in Mexico early next year and then extend to the U.K.
One reason to be optimistic about the success of the Corona initiative is that the brand has already set the table through its "This is Living" ad campaign, which draws an intimate connection between consumers and the beach lifestyle.
Even more importantly, the new rings are just part of Corona's efforts to take on ocean plastic through a new partnership with the collaborative organization Parley for the Oceans.
Somewhat ironically, Corona relies much more on glass bottles and cardboard boxes than ring-style packaging. Nevertheless, the brand sees an opportunity to lend its high profile to the search for producer-based solutions:
The beach is an important part of Corona’s DNA and we have been working with Parley to address the issue on the front lines where plastic is physically accumulating...We also recognize the influence a global brand like Corona can have on the industry, and with the support of Parley, are pursuing scalable solutions like plastic-free six pack rings that can become a new standard to avoid plastic for good.
That emphasis on industry responsibility is reinforced by Corona's experiences with Parley. The partnership began last year, and Corona has adopted Parley's "Avoid, Intercept, Redesign" strategy to emphasize that solutions need to extend beyond consumer responsibility:
With roughly 8 MM metric tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, there is a need to confront the issue on multiple fronts, which is why Corona has adopted Parley’s A.I.R. strategy to not only “avoid” and “intercept” plastic as much as possible, but also help “redesign” solutions that use the material."
Corona and Parley partnered on several awareness-raising initiatives last summer, including a limited edition Hawaiian-style shirt made with Parley's proprietary recovered ocean plastic fabric, with proceeds from the sale donated to Parley.
Another key highlight of the partnership is Corona's pledge to protect 100 islands from plastic pollution by 2020. That endeavor has already involved hundreds of beach cleanup projects, but as Corona points out, removing plastic pollution from beaches is a Sisyphean task -- and brands taking stands is the only permanent solution.
Photo: Corona via businesswire.com.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.