When I was 21 I went travelling with a friend in southern Africa. Our first stop was Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Once we’d checked into our hostel, we headed out to walk around the city. One of the first things we noticed in the city centre was a big sign that read: ‘Coca-Cola welcomes you to Harare’, which made us laugh. It was a nice thought, we supposed. But we found it odd that we weren’t being welcomed by the government, the city council or even local businesses – but Coca-Cola, one of the biggest brands in the world.
Since then I’ve discovered that global companies like Coca-Cola (often called ‘fast-moving consumer goods companies’ because of the type of products they sell) make it their business to heavily promote their products in low and middle income countries. Coca-Cola sells more drinks in South Africa than in the UK, and more in India than any country in Europe. They aren’t alone – other similar companies such as PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever – do the same.
Down the corporate rabbit hole
We might know these companies because of their more famous products, but they own thousands of brands between them that they sell across the world. And chances are that you’ve used at least one of their products this week or even today. Even if you never drink Coke, but have sipped a Sprite, Innocent Smoothie or a latte at Costa Coffee, then you’ve been a customer of Coca-Cola. If you’ve ever eaten KitKats, Smarties, Milkybars, or drunk Nescafé coffee, then you’ve handed money to Nestlé. Then there’s Walkers, Doritos, Tropicana and Quaker Oats, which are owned by PepsiCo. And if you love of Ben & Jerry’s and Wall’s ice creams, Marmite or use Persil, Dove or Domestos products at home, then you’re a Unilever customer. In poorer countries the brands are usually different but the companies behind it are the same.
Multinational companies like these are literally big business. They do what they say on the tin – they are companies that have a presence in multiple nations. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever between them own most of the 15 biggest brands in the world. And they are arguably richer and more influential than a lot of national governments. These companies are always looking for new ways to expand in ‘emerging markets’ – poorer countries where increasing wealth means new potential customers for their products. In India, for example, trainee Unilever managers now spend a month living in a rural village to help them understand how to sell their products there.
A plastic problem
Is it a problem that companies want to sell their products across the world? No. We might think it’s a good thing that people in poorer countries have access to the kind of products that those of us in richer nations have on our supermarket shelves too.
But here’s the thing: Multinational consumer goods companies carry most responsibility for the plastic waste crisis. Over the years, these companies have moved away from reusable packaging (e.g. selling their products in glass bottles that can be collected and recycled) to a throw-away model. These products are pushed into countries where there is little or no capacity to collect or manage plastic waste. Unfortunately these companies are currently doing little to collect and sustainably manage the waste they have created. As a result, people are forced to burn their rubbish or discard it in rivers and streams, producing toxic fumes or choking the environment. This has a big health impact –
Pullquote: every 30 seconds a person in a poorer country dies due to diseases caused by waste.
We spoke to Daiane, who is 23 and lives with her family in Recife, Brazil. She says, ‘A lot of rubbish comes down the river… What I see most are water bottles and fizzy drink bottles, the type of bottles that are not returnable.’ Plastic waste like this creates a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes, and blocks waterways and drains, which causes flooding. ‘When it floods, everyone gets diarrhoea and sickness. I get very down but there is nothing I can do about it, because I don’t have anywhere else to go. If I could send a message to the companies, it would be to tell them to stop throwing rubbish our way.’
Reduce, not recycle
Tearfund’s Rubbish Revolution is focusing on Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever because their commitments to reduce plastic waste don’t go far enough to help people like Daiane. They focus on recycling rather than getting to the root of their own plastic production problem. And unless urgent action is taken, global plastic production will double over the next ten to fifteen years. With big budgets for innovation and world-leading technical expertise, these companies can do so much better. Which is why we’re asking them to drastically reduce the single-use plastic that they produce at source.
The good news is that these companies care what we think. Since our campaign launched in May, over 22,000 of us have called on them to stop the rubbish. Such a huge response already has meant that companies have responded to us wanting to discuss the campaign. There is much more work to do, but we believe that if enough of us call for change then even the biggest companies can change their ways. And if they do, it will transform millions of lives.