Elen Macarthur Foundation

 

Will Anderson, Harmless: “I noticed a change in consumer demand”.

We talk to Will Anderson, creator of the dissolvable ‘plastic’ bag, about moving beyond greenwash and exporting better practices to fast-developing economies.

Can you tell us how Harmless, part of Cyberpac, was created?
Cyberpac is part of the Ant group, which employs about 35 people and has a turnover of approximately 6 to 7 million Pounds. The company’s products and expertise are present in various areas, from defense to medical to the creative industry, which is our space. Cyberpac has been going for about 10 years, I took over the business 18 months ago and quickly noticed a change in consumer demand that coincided with what I could see on a personal level: people really wanted more sustainable packaging, less plastic… But at the same time, I found the message sent by major businesses was terribly confusing, and to put things simply I realised there was an awful lot of greenwashing. That’s why we decided to launch our brand, one that would be quite ‘niche’, but very clearly under the heading of ‘compostable’. We did not want to be confused with the myriad of bio-degradable products available – everything is bio-degradable, it just depends how long you’re prepared to wait. We tackled the market by launching ‘Harmless Dissolve’, the bag that dissolves in water wrapped around Creative Review, and the response was phenomenal. I could barely answer the emails fast enough, they were coming from all over the world and notably from emerging economies that are more agile in their ability to change practices. Russia in particular, and government-backed companies, were very keen to get in touch. Some came to film and have a chat with us in our offices, then spread the word in their country through a web feature On the back of that, we’ve had numerous enquiries and are about to sign a contract – fingers crossed – for a substantial run of envelopes for a leading Russian social magazine.

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Is that to say that Europe is slower to get things done?
What we struggle with is the pace of change with regards to the legislation, and you’ll find that in the Middle East, certainly in Oman or places like that, they can ban plastic going into landfill overnight. It’s been done there, but also in Brasil or South Africa, and Brasil were very keen to get their hands on this, as they have a very environmentally-conscious outlook on economic issues. We noticed those countries were able to understand what we did, consider it, bring it in and allow it to go mainstream very quickly. Here, our environmental secretary did try, as part of the changes that took place on the 1st of April this year, to put a ban on plastics in landfill, but I suspect he probably came up against an opposition from a large group of plastic manufacturers and distributors across the UK. One can easily understand how those tensions might develop.

Does that mean you’re looking to expand abroad, on markets which are quicker to pick up on your ideas?
Absolutely, we have a footprint in Australia already, even though it’s still quite embryonic, and I’m speaking to people in South Africa about potential developments. It’s still in the preliminary phases, but they are as willing as we are to see the movement go forward. I also have interest coming from the USA, notably for carrier or grocery bags. These are my big projects, and they’re beginning to take shape, in the meantime at the moment our main effort is on UK production of bags for magazine and clothing

In concrete terms, how were your dissolvable bags created, and did that require major changes in your production processes?
We’ve had a long-standing relationship with a chemist, who we bring in on a consultancy basis. He’s been very close to all those kinds of developments throughout his career, and helped us bring our product to life, to polish it so it could have viability on the consumer market, not just the industry. It did require a bit of tweaking, and it’s been a bit tricky to obtain the satisfactory clarity, one that a magazine publisher would be comfortable with. We’ve also had to intervene on the supply chain, to find places where the bags could be what we call ‘converted’ – i.e. where they turn a roll of film into bags by folding, cutting and sealing. The dissolvable material behaves differently to plastic. We’ve had to do a lot of research on that front.

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Presumably, that means investments and efforts on your part as an entrepreneur, but do you feel there is a real political backup, are you encouraged and helped?
There are different ways to answer that, and let’s start by saying that at a local and regional level there is quite a lot of support. The Chamber of Commerce is supportive, and we won a regional ‘Small business of the year’ award for our innovations and objectives. What does not follow is a financial incentive to develop one of our product lines, which is the fully compostable bubble envelope. You get a lot of PR and doors do open, but when you need a bit of financial support just to cross the finish line, which is where we are with the Harmless bubble bag, it’s not always that forthcoming. It can be frustrating.

Do you advocate change in the business community, do you engage with other CEOs to promote better practices using Harmless’ example?
Yes, I do presentations, I have one coming up next month in fact – I’m quite keen for people to ‘get it’ and I think it needs that sort of push. Interestingly, I was listening to the politics show where Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General was talking about sustainability and made a reference to the dissolvable plastic bag. So I got in touch with him and we met for coffee, he was fascinated and showed real interest. Of course he’s a busy man and I’m not sure where that will go, but I try to talk to the government and other actors in the community. When we first launched the dissolvable bag we also sent a lot of samples to schools, and there has been a number of cases where we’ve supported science projects – quite a few in the United States actually. We worked with an artist as well, who created funky things with our products (See the Harmless blog).

So for you working with the creative industry and capitalising on the ‘cool’ factor, for lack of a better word, is key to touch the public?
Definitely, people are bored and confused with the traditional way of presenting sustainability, and the associated greenwash. I also think the timing is right, it’s now becoming a real culture and ethos – what Sir Stuart Rose and M&S are doing with Plan A is a good sign of that, and as a result other brands will have to follow suit. It’s a good and responsible place to be for the future, and that’s precisely where Harmless stands.

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