When the #breakfreefromplastic movement was founded, its members around the world vowed to mobilize around a common vision of a world free from plastic pollution. A key tool for achieving that vision was the development of brand audits, a citizen science initiative to record and expose the names of the companies trashing communities with their single-use plastic. Our first global brand audit was in 2018, and since then over 100,000 volunteers across six continents have powered this collective effort to pressure corporations to end plastic pollution for good.
Our brand audit leaders know all too well that no matter how hard we try as individuals to avoid single-use plastic and recycle whenever possible, it will unfortunately never be enough. Companies undermine these well-intentioned individual and community efforts by continuing to extract fossil fuels to manufacture ever more plastic packaging. That’s why we use brand audits to gather the data needed to shine the spotlight on the companies fueling this single-use plastic boom. Thanks to our global brand audit initiative and annual reports, we have been urging the top polluting companies to move towards real solutions like refill and reuse systems that eliminate the need for single-use plastic packaging altogether.
In 2022, we are entering our 5th year of mobilizing brand audits. This is an opportunity to reflect on what we have accomplished together thanks to the leadership and hard work of the BFFP movement’s brand audit leaders around the world.
Here are three big reasons to celebrate brand audits and the people who organize them!
1. New Corporate Sustainability Commitments
In February 2022, The Coca-Cola Company announced a new voluntary goal of 25% reusable packaging by 2030. With cautious optimism, for the thousands of participants who have conducted brand audits this is a major step in our campaign challenging fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies to invest in reuse and refill systems to tackle the climate and plastic crisis. The Coca-Cola Company has consistently been the world’s top plastic polluter since the beginning of our data collecting efforts. Our 2021 global brand auditors found nearly 20,000 Coca-Cola branded products, representing more pollution than the next two top polluters combined—as has been the case every year since 2019.
This new reuse commitment does not mean our work is over - far from it - but it does mark an important milestone. Until now, The Coca-Cola Company’s sustainability efforts had focused primarily on end-of-pipe collection,numerous cleanup projects and even selling plastic bottles made out of ocean plastic pollution they helped create. Previous statements from key Coca-Cola Company staff had framed plastic pollution as primarily a “consumer littering” problem, and touting recycling as the ultimate solution.
In the new Coca-Cola announcement, the company now acknowledges reuse as an effective way to reduce carbon emissions, a major shift after years of industry advocating that reuse would have higher carbon emissions. “Reusable packaging is among the most effective ways to reduce waste, use fewer resources and lower our carbon footprint in support of a circular economy,” said Ben Jordan, Senior Director, Packaging and Climate of The Coca-Cola Company (2022). Just a few years ago, this kind of statement coming from the world’s largest FMCG company would have been unthinkable. More and more companies are waking up to the benefits of reuse and we hope to see many more commitments in the near future.
2. Rewriting the Plastic Pollution Story
Thanks to the incredible work of brand audit leaders around the world,we have held FMCG companies accountable for their plastic pollution through our annual global reports, several films, and BFFP members’ own brand audit reports. These combined efforts are changing the story about plastic pollution, catalyzing conversations about its real causes and fueling efforts to create real solutions.
Our annual brand audit report has earned news coverage in major international media outlets like The Guardian, CNN, BBC, Le Monde, Reuters, and many more. All this media attention successfully amplifies the call for corporate polluters to take responsibility for plastic pollution and influences the dominant plastics narrative around the world. It is now the norm to see The Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever to be labeled ‘a top plastic polluter’ in any news story about them. Since we began gathering data in 2018, BFFP’s brand audits have been mentioned in 500 media articles written in over 30 different languages! In addition to the annual global BFFP brand audit report, over a dozen BFFP members and allies have published brand audit reports of their own. By doing so, they are strengthening our collective impact at the local and national level, influencing policy makers and demanding corporate accountability at the national level. There are now country brand audit reports in Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, UK, USA, Vietnam - and more coming soon!
In addition to our global and member-led reports, we also have shared our brand audit findings in films. The #breakfreefromplastic movement’s documentary, The Story of Plastic, features brand audits and recently won an Emmy award! In 2020, we collaborated with waste picker groups to conduct brand audits and co-produced a short film, Not Disposable: Waste Pickers. This film put waste pickers in the spotlight to directly call out the corporations challenging their livelihoods. In 2021, BFFP co-launched with BBC Panorama’s new documentary, Coca-Cola’s Billion Bottle Problem, which featured BFFP leaders, brand audits, and our 2021 data results naming The Coca-Cola company as #1 top polluter. The day after this film aired, UK prime minister Boris Johnson echoed our key messages and publicly shamed Coca-Cola as a top plastic polluter!
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Brand audit led by youth organizers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
3. Changing Systems Using the Law
BFFP members have used brand audit data to pass bans on single-use plastic, create zero waste communities and plastic-free schools, file lawsuits, and advocate for policy change through Extended Producer Responsibility (or Polluter Pay initiatives) and Deposit Return Systems. In big and small ways, brand audit data is a powerful tool to change systems - whether a small campus community, an island, or an entire country or company. Here are just a few examples!
Global Plastic Treaty: BFFP Youth Ambassador, Rafael Eudes, organized brand audits along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro in February 2022 to pressure the Brazilian government to support a global plastics treaty at UNEA 5.2!
Lawsuits: Citing brand audit data, BFFP member organizations in the USA have filed three different lawsuits in 2021 alone against top polluter The Coca-Cola Company for public nuisance and defective product liability, false and deceptive advertising, and misleading consumers on plastic bottle recycling.
Bans: On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, local organizers with Interfacing Development Interventions for Sustainability (IDIS) and Bantay Bukid hosted a brand audit in the Panigan-Tamugan watershed - one of the main sources of clean drinking water - in Davao City as part of a national month-long Zero Waste celebration. The group announced their brand audit data results and used the media attention to apply pressure to the Davao City council to pass the “No to Single-Use Plastic Ordinance” in March 2021.
Plastic-Free Campus: Alex Gordon, a student at Eckerd College in Florida, USA, conducted brand audits three years in a row and used the results to urge her school administrators to sign the plastic-free campus pledge. And it worked! Marshall University in West Virginia as well as Zero Waste Youth Negros Oriental in the Philippines also used their brand audit results to convince their campus president to sign the pledge to become a Plastic-Free Campus.
Extended Producer Responsibility: In May 2018, over 15,000 volunteers conducted waste and brand audits in 250 sites across India to “Beat Plastic Pollution” for World Environment Day. With India as the global host, 10 GAIA member organizations coordinated brand audits in 15 different Indian cities to identify the top corporate polluters using Break Free From Plastic methodology. In Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala in India, one brand audit in particular led to some exciting solutions. Local NGO Thanal audited 75 households for three weeks, and then presented the data results to the municipal authorities to demand the top polluting brands set up alternative delivery systems. Thiruvananthapuram is a success story that stands out for its municipality’s commitment to demand corporate accountability for waste.
In less than five years, BFFP members have made significant impacts by mobilizing their communities around the world to stand up to corporate plastic polluters and demand real change through brand audits. Over 100,000 people have participated in this global campaign to organize over 1,500 brand audit events in 55 countries. Together, we have built a plastic pollution database numbering over one million cataloged plastic waste items globally. These brand audits have changed the way we think about plastic pollution, and what we - and companies - can do about it. When you record brand audit data, you are directly challenging FMCG companies to create a plastic-free future. Now that’s something to celebrate!
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Our friends at Trash Hero know how to have fun with their brand audit dance!
Thank you to our brand audit community leaders and every single participant around the world who has joined in this collective effort to hold corporations accountable for their plastic waste. Let’s see what we will achieve together in 2022 and beyond!