Case Study: 4Ocean and consumer brands

There's an entire consumer market for sustainable solutions to marine plastic pollution! But how effective are these solutions really?

This is one of the case studies we're creating on different companies that are working in the plastic pollution space. We're hoping to highlight the good and bad examples of what kind of work is effective in solving this massive problem, keeping in mind that there are a lot of subcategories in this issue!

The first company we're analysing is 4Ocean. It's one of the most successful companies working on creating socially impactful direct to consumer (D2C) products that use recycled plastic. Other companies like them include Cape Clasp and Planet Love Life. The broad category they fit in is to create sustainable products for consumers and use profits to fund initiatives to address the plastic waste issue.

How it Works

This business model is a fairly unique way to make an impact on the plastic pollution issue. The biggest difference is that most other companies working in the plastics industry work with other businesses or the government.

Instead, 4Ocean creates socially sustainable products for consumers. Specifically, it predominantly sells bracelets made out of recycled materials to affluent buyers in developing countries. These bracelets are made out of recycled glass/plastic bottles and crafted mainly by women in Indonesia.

Additionally, it uses some of the profits from these bracelets to clean plastic pollution from the ocean. For each bracelet it sells (which is about $20 to $30 USD), it cleans 1 pound of waste from the ocean. From 2017 to May 5, 2020, they've cleaned up 8.7 million pounds of waste (3950 tonnes) of waste from the oceans.

For context, this might reasonably represent about 4% of plastic in the surface of the ocean, 0.05% of all plastic entering the ocean, or 0.001% of all plastic waste generated in 2010- assuming 100,000 tonnes of plastic in the surface of the ocean, 8M tonnes of plastic entering the ocean, and 275M tonnes of plastic waste generated per year (Source).

All of this creates a strong aspect of social sustainability for 4Ocean, which is the main factor used in their marketing. 4Oceans has especially strong marketing, creating an entire 'lifestyle brand' and community with their customer base. They also engage in education campaigns, volunteer beach cleanups, and other events with their customer base.

What are the Benefits?

Because of this engaged customer base, 4Ocean is uniquely positioned to be an effective leader in consumer awareness and advocacy about this issue - even more so than many of the other organisations we've looked at which EXCLUSIVELY focus on increasing customer awareness about plastic pollution.

Another benefit involves the very nature of selling products to consumers instead of businesses or the government. When it comes to selling recycled products to other stakeholders, there is often higher competitiveness in the market for price. If you were to say sell similar bracelets made of recycled materials in bulk on Alibaba for instance, the going price is as little as $0.50 USD instead of $20 to $30 USD (Source).

With consumers, however, 4Ocean can place a greater emphasis on its socially sustainable branding. To the stereotypically affluent consumer in the U.S., the difference between a $10, $15, and $20 bracelet is the same as the difference between a $0.50, $0.52, and $0.55 bracelet to an industrial customer.

This means that 4Oceans' approach is VERY profitable and can be marketed with successful PR with a lot of effort put into it.

What are the Limitations?

The issue is with where all this profit is going. Now, 4Ocean isn't an NGO - as a profit business, they have no obligations to donate all their money to a socially impactful cause, nor report how much of their money actually DOES go to a socially impactful cause. There's SPECULATION online about how much (or little) of their profitable business' earnings go towards cleaning plastic pollution in the ocean (Source ).

Officially, 4Ocean says this (Source):

"As of July 2019, over 98% of our revenue has been invested toward our global ocean cleanup mission, with our two founders receiving 0.7% each in personal compensation."

Then comes the other main issue. While cleaning plastic waste in the ocean is a pretty marketable venture, it isn't by any means an effective solution to the plastic waste problem. As I mentioned above, 4Ocean has only cleaned 3950 tonnes of plastic waste in 3 YEARS. Comparing that to the amount of waste we generate EVERY YEAR, this only represents 0.001% of the problem.

Also, cleaning plastics from the ocean doesn't do much to stop them from getting there in the first place. There are a lot of other pressing problems when it comes to plastic pollution that are a lot closer to the root cause of the issue. For instance, organising informal waste systems and open dumps in developing countries in Asia is just one of many other problems that are more important to solve (Source).

And when it comes to cleaning the ocean (which doesn't address the root cause of the issue), a more scalable approach is with the work done at the Ocean Cleanup. They're currently developing automated systems to collect plastics flowing into the oceans from rivers, where 80% of ocean plastics originate from (Source).

All things considered, 4Oceans' business model is very profitable and unique compared to most other organisations in this space. But unless all those profits are primarily being invested in ways that REALLY tackle the issue in the longterm, these profits and their outreach doesn't have as much impact as it could.

Does this Area need More Attention?

In general, cleaning the oceans isn't a great solution to the problem. It doesn't fix it in the long run. Consumer advocacy can be said to play a more long term role, but the consumer advocacy space has a lot of people working on it already - ex. organisation 1, organisation 2, organisation 3, etc.

In our opinion, more urgent areas to work on/study include:

  1. Helping create more environmentally friendly standards for informal waste management (Source)
  2. Speeding up the cost-effective development of alternative plastics (Source)
  3. Creating policies to make producers responsible for the waste generated from their products (Source)

We hope to inspire more research and action on areas such as these, as well as inspiring organisations with business models like 4Oceans to make the most of their strengths while reconsidering their weaknesses!

Further Reading: