Is ‘materiality assessment for plastics’ the answer?

26 September, 2019

By George Cole, Senior Consultant at Resource Futures

Pressure is mounting for organisations to announce how they will respond to particular environmental and sustainability issues. Plastics are a case in point. Many of our clients are looking to reduce their plastics consumption and find new solutions that benefit the environment. But where should they start?

  • How can an organisation understand the root cause of its environmental footprint?
  • What issues matter most to key stakeholder groups?
  • Where are the best opportunities to make a difference?

Confronted with these questions in our work for Co-op Central England, we explored the potential of conducting a materiality assessment.

What is a materiality assessment?

A materiality assessment is a tool for understanding and prioritising sustainability issues, taking account of stakeholder views on which are the most important issues and the organisation’s ability to influence change. However, the traditional materiality assessment approach can be a long and complex process not necessarily suited to the fast-paced worlds of retail, plastics and fast-moving consumer goods where a lot of the plastics work is needed.

Adapting materiality assessment to the plastics challenge

Stakeholder consultation and considering change management issues are vitally important in the context of sustainability and the plastics debate has ignited a lot of discussion not only from consumers but businesses too. The materiality assessment incorporates these considerations whilst evaluating the environmental impact of solutions in a rigorous way. Nonetheless, fast developing environmental concerns like plastics consumption need a swifter response than the traditional approach allows.

So, Resource Futures set about adapting the materiality assessment methodology to:

  • Account for the environmental and social impacts of different plastic products and packaging approaches
  • Deliver insight much more quickly and pragmatically
  • Uncover clear and tangible priorities including quick wins and longer term gains

Our first project was for Co-op Central England to inform their strategic plastics approach. Our materiality assessment considered competing and even conflicting drivers, avoiding pitfalls and knee-jerk reactions, to develop a holistic, integrated and comprehensive strategy.

A pragmatic materiality assessment methodology

Our pragmatic materiality assessment methodology takes place over 7 stages, illustrated below with examples from our work with Co-op Central England:

  1. Agree focus and scope of assessment – e.g. internal plastics use and retail;
  2. Identify relevant impacts – street litter, marine litter, plastics exports and illegal waste sites, climate change, and resource use;
  3. Identify key stakeholder groups to consult – CSR team, marketing team, staff, customers, and general public;
  4. Understand stakeholders’ priorities and key issues – through surveys and focus groups;
  5. Identify main sources of environmental and social impact – review where greatest quantity of plastics is used; identify high risk items with impacts matching stakeholders’ priorities, such as plastic straws, plastic cups, cigarette butts, and sweet wrappers;
  6. Assess organisations ability to influence change – the power to control and make changes in the short term and in the long term, and partners needed to create that change;
  7. Find solutions – key opportunities to change and solutions that fit your needs.

A simple, visual output for fast decision making

The materiality assessment is represented on a simple graphic. The research process provides the assessment of products and solutions, which are then mapped onto the graphic. Those in the top right are highest priority and should be addressed first.

Products shown are illustrative only and in no way represent data from Central England Co-operative or any other client.

This visual output is easy to understand and can be used to communicate the rationale behind decisions with others.

So what?

The materiality assessment highlights the priority areas to address, through evidence-based research and stakeholder consultation and identifies solutions to pursue. Understanding the priority issues helps the general direction for plastics, environmental and CSR strategy whilst identifying very specific actions that can be taken. The evidence base built in the work provides a demonstratable justification for decisions made.

One final step – future proofing decisions against policy & competitive drivers

With the materiality assessment complete, it would be tempting to plough straight ahead. However, this can’t be viewed in isolation, clearly. An important next step is to review solutions against national and international government policy plus other relevant organisations to future-proof decisions and ensure actions are aligned with external influences. A market review of competitors helps set your strategy in the wider context, identify innovative aspects to promote and best practice to adopt.

The benefits of materiality assessment in a nutshell

Responding to complex environmental issues poses a challenge for any organisation. Plastics in particular has drawn some knee-jerk reactions that are ineffective or even counterproductive. In contrast, this holistic approach helps organisations consider internal and external stakeholders and balance environmental and social impacts to ensure the best options are developed. Actionable insight is delivered quickly and pragmatically, setting priorities for quick wins and longer term strategies. The outputs support engagement and communication activities and provide an evidence-base to justify action taken.

Is it time you found out how a materiality assessment could work for you? Contact George Cole or Emma Burlow