Searious Business: stop the sea of plastic

Imagine that you are already concerned about the fate of our planet at a young age. And you want to look back later at having made an identifiable impact on the environment in your life. Then you won’t waste your time with crumbs. Then you’ll put all your energy where you have the best chance of making a difference. For example, at multinationals such as Unilever. Or even at the UN summit where environmental targets and measures are set at a global level. Only then will you make serious business out of your sustainable ambitions. Or in the case of Willemijn Peeters: Searious Business.

Text Paul van Vugt
Image Nathalie and Pascale Duin

Willemijns Searious Business mission is as clear as blue water: ensuring 100% plastic-free oceans. To achieve this, the business helps companies rethink their plastic use by redesigning packaging, products and business models. The source of this renewable energy is in Apparatenfabriek at Eindhoven’s Strijp-S, where we met Willemijn. Don’t expect an activist lecturing at all the companies polluting the environment. Her approach isn’t to work against them, but with these companies. Inviting and positive. With the power of dialogue.

Willemijn: “A long time ago, I once participated in a Greenpeace campaign. In supermarkets, we started labelling shampoo bottles, because the product was unacceptable. Actually, the campaign was very polite. It was pre-announced and the stickers were easy to remove. But still, I found that terrifying. That kind of rebelliousness is just not in my nature.”

“That said, I have a lot of respect for those who go out demonstrating. Indeed, activist organisations help push issues higher up on the agenda. Thanks in part to their efforts, climate issues are firmly on the map now. Much more than seven years ago, when I started Searious Business.”

A cog in a huge system of wheels
Before starting her mission, Willemijn worked as a business controller at Philips. She never had the intention to work there. Nevertheless, it was there that she learnt how big companies make decisions. The biggest lesson for her, however, was that this was not her place. Willemijn: “You are such a small cog that you can hardly make a difference. And I didn’t want to look back on a career where I had zero impact. Deep in my heart, I wanted to leave the world a little more beautiful.”

Willemijn decided to leave Philips to pursue a job at the Nature and Environment Foundation. She helped frontrunner companies in the Netherlands, moving sectors forward. Later, through Stichting Switch, she specifically helped Dutch SMEs in their sustainability ambitions, for example by switching to solar panels and electric vehicle fleets. Her clients were enthusiastic, but for Willemijn, her energy soon ebbed away. It seemed like a gimmick. And the impact was too small. Her only option was to resign.

‘All change starts with one person. You just have to think big, otherwise nothing will happen.’

During conversations with a career coach, Willemijn discovered a deepening of her enduring ambition: her passion for the ocean began to surface.

Willemijn: “When I’m speaking from the heart, I always come back to the ocean. It fascinates me. It’s such an important ecosystem for us. Half of our oxygen comes from the ocean. But at the same time, we abuse it, like a drainage pit for our society. This concern set me on the right track. I wanted to prevent plastic waste. The key question was: is there a sustainable and viable business model here? Where there was a profit for the sea, for businesses and, of course, for me, as a catalyst. Because I wanted to think like a profit-making organisation and not like a subsidised foundation.”

Starting at the source
Enthusiasm turned to doubt for Willemijn. Because how can you clean up something that cannot be cleaned up. How much sense does it make to fish plastic out of that immense ocean? It was immediately clear to her that she had to make a difference at the front lines. “We have to turn off the plastic tap. This problem will only be reduced by tackling it at the source.”

Willemijn held exploratory talks with potential, mostly small clients. Their sustainable ambition was palpable and Willemijn translated it into targeted ideas to reduce plastic waste. “I put my proposal on paper, calculated my hours and presented my offer. What followed was simple incomprehension on the other side of the table: ‘You want to improve the world, don’t you? Well, this is your chance, but why should I have to pay for that?”

“I was dumbfounded. Apparently, you are only allowed to make money by ruining the world, and not by improving it. ‘What exactly am I doing here,’ I asked myself. And who do I think I am anyway, with my ocean mission. Yet the urgency was obvious: two rubbish trucks of plastic disappear into the sea every minute. Bolstered by that fact, I gave myself two months. I bet high and decided to stop wasting my time talking to small players. I needed to be with the Unilevers of this world. The challenge was how to get a seat at the table. To be noticed by these parties, who already have so many other climate issues on their agendas.”

‘As a agent of change, I only needed to convince a few decision-makers in business to reach a tipping point.’

The power of words
“There was no budget for marketing campaigns to increase my exposure. But what I did have was a story. So I had to rely on my words. And I used them to speak to decision-makers in multinational enterprises. I knew that as a small organisation, you have to be very aware of how you spend your energy. So we built a business model focused on just a few people from a few large companies. Parties we could work with to make a big difference.”

The power of words worked its magic. Willemijn began building a name for herself through conferences and networking. And by just making bold calls. Big business began to take note of Searious Business. And the orders started coming in. The output? There were no fistfuls of abstract advisory reports like many of the other consultancies produce. Just practical, smart business cases that are plastic-free and profitable.

Packaging a strong idea
Willemijn: “One concrete example is the packaging-free concept that you are now seeing more and more often on shop floors. Dispensers allow consumers to fill their own jars with food, eliminating the need for packaging. A strong and relevant idea at its core, but in terms of execution, it is often poorly thought through. There is barely any marketing or communication, the financial incentives for consumers are often still missing… In short, the conditions for success are lacking. While the truth is, you only need to turn a few knobs to make this model profitable. To keep it viable and to even scale it up so that companies can help consumers change their behaviours.”

Changing corporate behaviour is crucial to ridding the world of plastic. But changing the behaviour of governments is at least an equal challenge, as Willemijn’s experience tells her. She has a seat at the table among UN countries drafting a treaty to tackle the plastic problem. Willemijn: “This involves truly tough measures on the use of plastic. The UN is finally recognising how much of a social and biological impact plastic has on our lives and how important sea water quality is to us. They also recognise that all of these different rules in each country do not really contribute to a cleaner world. We can only achieve this by acting together in unison. With clear and strong ambition. I feel incredibly honoured to be in this position. It’s the ultimate chessboard for game changing policy.”

“Years ago, I could only dream of having this podium. A lot of relevant content is discussed. At the same time, geopolitics unrelated to plastics are also emerging. For instance, Russia claiming that another country is speaking unfairly on behalf of the Eastern European countries for which they are not sufficiently informed. There are also countries that are not allowed to speak to each other. And then you have countries that have a clear interest in continuing to produce plastic. They just use stalling tactics. All the energy you put into those parties is wasted effort.”

“In my career I’ve learnt that you have to choose your battles. Focus on those parties where you can get the highest results. And yes, this is sorely needed. Because the demand for plastic is still increasing.”

‘In the Netherlands, we excel at stalling, involving interest groups and weighing up all the aspects. Here, we’re trying to solve problems with people who are the root cause of the problem.’

The Netherlands at the back lines
A tipping point for plastic use is not yet in sight, but Willemijn is hopeful that Searious Business will one day become redundant. That the organisation will send itself packing because of all the great regulations being created. She is not expecting any miracles from the Netherlands in this respect.

“We aren’t exactly at the forefront of this battle. In the Netherlands, we excel at stalling, involving interest groups and weighing up all the aspects. Here, we’re trying to solve problems with people who are the root cause of the problem. By definition that doesn’t work. That applies to plastic, nitrogen and countless other cases. The goals are clear, the paths to them are clear, so why do we still need to mediate? That’s really because of our consensus-based ‘polder’ culture. I understand that we’re a democracy, but some decisions just need to be made.”

Example countries
“I prefer to work for countries where they are much further along. Where they think in terms of reuse, and collaborate meaningfully with businesses. The ball is in their court to tilt the system. Companies and governments need to make the shift, then make these changes interesting to consumers so that they join the cause. And above all, we shouldn’t think that we as individuals can make a difference, no matter how noble some are in terms of what they do for the environment.”

‘It’s a pipe dream to think I’m going to improve the world with my small, individual choices.’

“Just like so many others, I make very environmentally conscious purchases. But it’s a pipe dream to think I’m going to improve the world with my small, individual choices. It’s about scaling up. The bigger picture. Getting the masses on board.”

“Look at France. There, they made the resolute decision that you can no longer package certain fruits and vegetables. A few companies demonstrated that it was possible, which the government immediately followed up on by implementing tough regulations. Consumers then follow automatically. The Netherlands can take an example from this decisiveness. That also applies to the reusable bottle system in Germany. These aren’t recycled, but cleaned by producers and then reused. This system works and delivers gains for all those involved.”

“You know, it’s not even special that Germany is doing this. It’s much more remarkable that we aren’t doing this in the Netherlands. Our compact country with its short distances has the ideal infrastructure. But unfortunately, the government lacks the mentality to follow through.”

“When I hear myself like this… maybe I do sound a bit like an activist now. But in fact, activism is nothing more than a form of action. And that’s what we need.”

“In that respect, I pinned my hopes on companies with the right mindset. For example, here at Brainport. Our region thrives on designers, creatives, specialists with material knowledge and creators. There’s so much potential here to innovate towards a plastic-free future. And the great thing is that this turnaround doesn’t cost any money, but actually creates sustainable and strong business cases. For searious business.”

Druk op enter om te zoeken of ESC om te sluiten
Press enter to search or ESC to close