Of all the plastic ever produced, approximately two-thirds of it ended up in the natural environment, according to a 2020 study by the European Parliament. From there, the plastics can degrade, flow into rivers and enter marine food webs. Scientists have already found solutions that clean the environment of microplastics (such as adhesive bacteria or one magnetic liquid), and some companies are innovating to stop the flow in the first place.
How two very different companies started working together on microplastics
At this year’s Consumer Technology Association conference, Samsung, maker of phones, laptops, refrigerators and more, announced a range of sustainability initiatives for its appliances. Among the initiatives was a collaboration with outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. It may seem like an unexpected collaboration, Mark Newton, corporate sustainability manager at Samsung Electronics America, told TriplePundit, but when it comes to tackling microplastics, he said, it’s perfectly logical.
Big issues like microplastic pollution require careful thought and collaboration. For Newton, who has worked in the field of corporate sustainability for a few decades, Samsung’s new collaboration contains all the ingredients for success (and not all working relationships do) – shared values and clear objectives with adequate funds.
What does it take to build a business 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 some time, because, to be frank, the retailer’s clothing is often made with plastic-based materials. “They are acutely aware that their products shed, and they do everything they can to try to avoid that,” Newton said. The company aims to be part of the larger microplastics solution while minimizing its own contribution to the problem. Patagonia led research on textile design and fabric breakdown, useful findings as Samsung updates its washing machine design. And the retailer knows it can make a bigger difference in solving fiber loss with a technology company on its side, Newton added.
Patagonia’s choice to work with Samsung was ideal, as the electronics company has already invested in sustainable solutions for its washing machines. Features such as efficiency cold washes and washing-personalization artificial intelligence already help to reduce the continuous wear and tear of the fabrics.
Newton said the specificity of the collaboration is a plus. In fact, successful collaboration requires clear goals — what you’re going to do together and what you’re not doing, he said. And even if the project only involves a slight adjustment of the multinational’s washing machines, it can make a big difference. “I think one of the big things about Samsung is our scale,” Newton said. “The little things we do really amplify our product line and then our product sales, so we can make relatively small daily changes that have a big impact.” For Samsung, it was also important that the project be linked to the company’s broader goals of mitigating climate change, building a circular economy and listening to the next generation of customers. Staying aligned with those larger goals helps keep business focused, Newton said.
Commitment, investments and time
Finally, Newton added, healthy collaboration requires adequate resources. In fact, devoting the time and money necessary for a successful sustainability initiative requires understanding the business case to do it. Externalities such as the impact of mining on local water systems or the effect of microplastics on ocean life are often overlooked when designing, manufacturing or pricing a product. “I think about this way…that if we incorporate 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,” said said Newton.
But working together, while serious, doesn’t have to be dark. When he first learned that his team was going to work with Patagonia, Newton said he was “thrilled”. He said he knows the value they will bring to the table, and he expects the collaboration to be fun.
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