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How Corporate Collaboration Can Slow the Flow of Microplastics into the Environment

Huge problems like microplastics pollution require big thinking, and working together: And that's exactly what Samsung and Patagonia are now doing.
By Roya Sabri

Of all the plastic that has ever been produced, approximately two-thirds has found its way into the natural environment, according to a 2020 study from the European Parliament. From there, plastics can degrade, flow into rivers and enter marine food webs. Scientists have already come up with some solutions that clear the environment of microplastics (like adhesive bacteria or a magnetic liquid), and some businesses are innovating to stop the flow from the start.

How two very different companies started to work together on microplastics

At this year’s Consumer Technology Association conference, Samsung — maker of phones, laptops, refrigerators and more — announced a lineup of sustainability initiatives for its home appliances. Among the initiatives was a collaboration with outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. That may seem like an unexpected collaboration, Mark Newton, head of corporate sustainability at Samsung Electronics America, told TriplePundit, but when it comes to tackling microplastics, he said it makes perfect sense.

Big issues like microplastics pollution require big thinking — and working together. For Newton, who has worked in corporate sustainability for decades, Samsung’s new collaboration has all the ingredients for success (and not every working relationship does) — from shared values and clear objectives to adequate funds.

What does it take to build a corporate collaboration that actually has a positive environmental impact?

First, Newton noted, Patagonia and Samsung are at the table to work. Patagonia has been working on the issue of microplastics for a while now, because, to be frank, the retailer’s garments are often made with plastic-based materials that can shed in the washer and enter the environment through laundry wastewater. “They are deeply aware that their products are shedding, and they’re doing everything they can to try to avoid that,” Newton said. The apparel company aims to be part of the larger solution to microplastics while minimizing its own contribution to the problem. Patagonia has conducted research on textile design and the breakdown of fabrics, findings that come in handy as Samsung updates its washing machine design. And the retailer knows it can make a bigger difference in solving fiber shedding with a tech company at its side, Newton added.

Patagonia’s choice to work with Samsung was ideal, because the electronics company has already invested in sustainable solutions for its washing machines. Features such as effective cold washes and wash-customizing artificial intelligence already help diminish the ongoing wear-and-tear of fabrics.

Newton said the collaboration’s specificity is a plus. In fact, a successful collaboration needs clear goals — what you’re going to do together and what you’re not, he said. And even if the project leads to only a slight adjustment to the multinational’s washing machines, that can make a big difference. "One of the things that is important about Samsung is our scale,” Newton said. “The small things that we do really amplify across our product line and then across our product sales, so that we can make relatively small everyday changes that have a big impact.” For Samsung, it was also important that the project related to the company’s bigger-picture goals of climate mitigation, building a circular economy, and listening to the next generation of customers. Staying aligned with those larger goals helps keep activities focused, Newton said.

Commitment, investments and time

Finally, Newton added, a healthy collaboration needs adequate resources. Actually putting in the needed time and money for a successful sustainability initiative requires understanding the business case for doing so. Externalities like the impact of mining on local water systems or the effect of microplastics on ocean life are often ignored when designing, manufacturing, or pricing a product. “I think about this way…that if we're bringing these externalities into the decision-making process, we're going to make better decisions, and we're going to be in business longer, which is one way to define sustainability,” Newton said.

But working together, though serious, doesn’t have to be somber. When he first learned his team was going to work with Patagonia, Newton said he was “thrilled,” knowing the value they would bring to the table, and he expects the collaboration will be fun.

Image credit via Adobe Stock

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

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