Thank you for inviting me to your ‘Building Sustainable Partnerships: ALDI, Good Different’ event…
I’m atop a very long escalator in the lobby of a fancy hotel in the city of Sydney. I slowly descend into the ornate dungeon below. Well, it is called The Ballroom, but from where I stand, it looks like a place where people with money and power frequent. Part of me wants to flee, run back up the escalator and try and catch my husband who is on his way to the office. Sitting down for a coffee with him would be preferable to the terror almost in front of me now…
But I have come too far, worked too hard and for too long to run away now. I have created so much energy and motion, that even if I stand rooted in place with fear, I will still end up there. This decision has already been made for me.
The expansive, fancy ballroom-dungeon begins to fill my vision. It looks empty, but as my stationary body is pulled downward, into the scary pit, I see a crowd of well-dressed people, some have travel luggage with long handles and wheels and have flown into Sydney just to attend this meeting. My chest tightens, I pull my hat lower, I am about to enter the lion’s den, containing a beast that I have prodded and provoked for four years. A couple of times I look over my shoulder to see if there is anyone who looks like an assassin, ready to take me out. The escalator trip ends at the bottom, I am forced off, holy fuck… what the hell do I do now?
I have my #PlasticFreeProduce campaign shirt on, hidden under a jumper and a leather jacket. A year ago, I would have styled my hair straight, but I am going next level eco-friendly, and letting it dry naturally, which is not really helping me blend into this immaculate corporate environment. I look out of place like a plastic wrapped avocado. Part of me wonders if the people here actually have no idea who I am. On the train ride into Sydney, I mentioned to my husband that maybe my invitation was a mistake. He laughed, not dispelling my doubt. “If I was them, there’s no way I’d invite you.”
Anyone who follows me on social media will be familiar with my relentless exposure of the big supermarkets’ plastic addiction. They claim to have sustainable practices while wrapping most of their produce in copious amounts of plastic. It’s obvious who I am, but not once have any of the ‘Big Three’ – Woolworths, Coles, or ALDI – acknowledged me or my work beyond prewritten ‘copy and paste’ replies on social media. My husband Tim works for a successful social media tech business and has assured me that I would have been mentioned in the boardroom marketing meetings of the Big Three, and included in their ‘social listening’ reports, as an annoying example of negative brand sentiment. I was only half convinced. A silent air of, don’t let the little people know they have power, seemed to be their policy.
So many things have happened that only I know about, an example being Woolworths adding a ‘crate-to-bench’ option for their Home Delivery Service after I exposed their original one for the plastic nightmare it was. They also drastically reduced the price of loose sweet potatoes. This was after I exposed the ridiculous difference in pricing between the packaged and unpacked sweet potatoes. They went so far as displaying them near the entrance of my local Woolworths. A temporary victory though, they are back to their old pricing tricks!
I also discovered Woolworths use listening software that monitors my Facebook page for any mentions of them and their plastic addiction. These examples and more could be dismissed as paranoia, except that I know they are in direct response to my anti-plastic work. Like a clear photo of Bigfoot or a U.F.O., I always look for undeniable proof that what I am doing is reaching upper management in any of the major supermarkets – Woolworths, Coles, and ALDI. To me, this would be sweet reward for the thousands of hours I have put into the #PlasticFreeProduce cause.
Out of the blue, I received an invitation in my email inbox to a secret event called, Building Sustainable Partnerships: ALDI, Good Different. Full of doubt, I thought I was just some random person they picked. After all, I am the woman who harasses and exposes their excessive use of plastic on my social channels.
Yet, here I am, at their event. An enemy spy unarmed and unprepared for how deep she has penetrated her target’s fortress. I see a queue of whispering corporates, in smart dark-shaded clothes, they are queuing up to collect name tags from the table. OK, now it’s real, will there even be a name tag for me and will anyone even know who I am? I sheepishly make eye contact with a lady and state my name, not thinking I would be anyone they know. Immediately her eyes light up and she excitedly informs another staff member in a hushed tone that I am here. And then – drum roll please – with tears welling, I am handed a name tag. Below the shiny ALDI logo on the tag is my hashtag!
Holy Fuck, they do know who I am. I have just been handed proof, PROOF! they know who I am.
Over the years, many people have told me not to waste my time on social media and go directly to management to ask for what I want. But I know, I know, how power and hierarchy function. I have been the victim of extreme humiliation by people who think they are more powerful than me. I know what happens if you ask someone big and strong to do something they don’t want to. They say no, while making you feel shitty about yourself, relishing the opportunity to make you feel like you are an absolute nobody. This has been my existence for most of my life. I reached a point where I am simply not going to do this to myself anymore (more on my background in my first two books).
When it comes to corporations, there is no human connectedness, but rather, responses created by a marketing team, checked by a bunch of lawyers and then handed to an executive for approval, which can only happen once all the heart, soul and personality have been surgically removed. Then that is handed to the social media person who will copy and paste that reply to anyone who asks a question of substance, such as what are you going to do to reduce the amount of plastic in your stores?
I am a nobody, so to get a response beyond a boilerplate, I believed I needed to get numbers on my side, like-minded people to amplify my voice. To simply expose the excessive plastic that every person sees every day but turns a blind eye to. I am a photographer and know the power of a still image, so I used photos to make people confront the insanity of how we buy our food, and then I went down the rabbit hole – researching plastic packaging, and everything I learned, I shared on social media.
I also learnt that we only need about 5% of the population, widely distributed, to support a major social shift, for our attitude to plastic packaging to change. I knew we could do it. But we are up against some formidable forces, who don’t like to be challenged and are too big and powerful and pay too much in advertising, to be challenged head on. I have been through so much in my personal life, and all the things I ever hated about my personality, that I resented about myself, suddenly made me, the right person to fill the big empty void. There was a spot waiting to be filled, and no one else took it, so I did.
I place my name tag, that is fastened to a lanyard, around my neck with pride, not because I want to be viewed as an ALDI representative, but because this is a badge of honour, one I have earned with four years of blood, sweat, and tears on my social channels. They have recognised and acknowledged me. Unlike all the powerful people in my life who did all they could to make me feel pathetic and worthless, I am, in this moment – acknowledged. So, for this ALDI, thank you. And thank you for taking the risk of inviting me here. I know you hope I will walk away from the event overwhelmed by how amazing you are, but you also know you took a risk inviting me, because one of my personality traits is brutal honestly, and no one can truly predict what I will say, sometimes that includes me.
I plan to hide up the back of the ballroom in a quiet corner, I don’t know how many people here know me, and possibly hate me. Too late! A lovely lady with a huge smile escorts me right to the front table and allocates the very front seat so I can see and hear everything clearly. I ask for permission to photograph and take video and I receive the OK. I know that there is an embargo on the event until it finishes, after that I can post what I want.
Breakfast is included and there is beautiful food on the table that no one is eating. Everyone seems to be as nervous as me, but I am not sure why. Jamie Durie is the MC which I did not know, because everything about the event had been kept secret from all the attendees. He’s lovely and passionate, you can’t help but like him. A tall German man, Oliver Bongardt, Managing Director, ALDI Corporate Buying, speaks and tells his story about being the founder of ALDI in Australia decades ago, and hand packing the tomatoes himself and how hard it was to get ALDI off the ground. He confesses the last thing on his mind was if the packaging was sustainable. He looks quite young, I imagine him as almost a teenager, coming to a new country with his thick German accent trying to get us Aussies on board this new supermarket. It would have been incredibly challenging. He is obviously someone with drive to make it come to fruition.
“We will actively reduce the amount of plastic packaging in our fresh produce range and transition to more sustainable alternatives where possible, providing no increase in food waste.” — ALDI Australia.
There are details of wonderful things ALDI is proud of, being the “only supermarket to offer a battery recycling program and every store in ALDI’s network is linked to one or more food rescue partners. By the end of 2018, ALDI had donated 4,077 tons of food waste or 8.15 million meals to a series of Australian charities, including FoodBank, OzHarvest and Second Bite. Further, last year ALDI collected and facilitated the recycling of 5.9 million batteries, the first supermarket to eliminate phosphate from our entire laundry range, and the first to eliminate microbeads storewide… There is growing recognition that we all must move away from the take-make-dispose model to build a circular economy where we use less plastic and ensure plastic we use can be reused, recycled or composted. Our goal is to reduce our reliance on plastic packaging by 25% by 2025. With transparency in mind, we will publicly report against these goals from 2020.”
Oliver mentions several times that ALDI is the only supermarket to not offer free plastic carry bags and they did so from the very beginning. This is a recurring theme at the event, that ALDI does not give away free plastic bags. But there seems to be a complete blind spot here, as they do give away limitless free plastic bags in the fresh produce section, but for some reason, supermarkets think these don’t count as free plastic bags, I beg to differ.
I take video on my smartphone of Oliver and most of the speakers who follow him, which I will insert here, so I will not quote everything that was said. Oliver tells an endearing story, that it is his job to sometimes do his family’s grocery shopping. He came home with all his groceries and put them on the bench and was in the process of unpacking them, when his young son challenged him about all the plastic, especially on the fresh produce. He proudly showed his son the new cardboard insert in one of the vegetable packs. But instead of being impressed at the reduced plastic, his son shrugged and challenged him about it having any packaging at all, did it need that plastic oversleeve? Oliver shrugs as if he has already proven himself and any further improvement was unnecessary. But for me the moral of the story is the son of ALDI’s founder in Australia was effectively saying, Dad, why aren’t you selling #PlasticFreeProduce? Woot Woot!
My video of the speakers, juxtaposed with how produce is presented in ALDI stores:
Can you believe I was invited to an ALDI Australia event? Here’s a peek behind the plastic curtain. Plus, my take on their plastic reduction commitments here => http://bit.ly/AnitaVisitsALDI
Posted by Anita Horan on Saturday, July 6, 2019
There are other speakers, all passionate with powerful things to say. I am impressed by the grandiose goals ALDI have set for themselves as well as the honesty about our current plastic crisis and willingness to admit that oceans are in peril because of our excessive use of plastic. They mention Craig Reucassel and ABC Television’s War on Waste documentary many times and even have a screenshot of my segment!
I am not in the shot, but the pile of plastic I created with my team and Craig in their store, is being shown to the entire ALDI team and all their suppliers! Another speaker says if they do not improve, they will be the target of ongoing attacks by activists. These are two wicked moments in my life, I am tempted to stand on the table and confess, “That was me!” But I don’t want to risk being dragged out by security. I’m sure my attendance has them on high alert.
“It is our ambition to reduce the amount of plastics in our stores, while in parallel stimulating Australia’s circular economy, ensuring that our business partners have commercially viable packaging options to reduce their reliance on virgin materials.
Despite our desire, and that of our customers, to remove plastics immediately, this process will take years not weeks.” — Oliver Bongardt, Managing Director of Buying, ALDI Australia (emphasis mine)
ALDI are singing their own praises and they do seem to have a lot to be proud of. It seems they do take complaints and consumer concerns seriously and adapt where they can. An example being palm oil, switching to certified sustainably sourced, a process which is near completion. But in amongst the self-praise, I see what I feel is a sinister undercurrent, an elephant in this big, scary, tightly guarded dungeon ballroom. To me, there seems to be a powerful marriage between the plastics industry and ALDI. To be clear, I am not singling ALDI out, I think it is representative of possibly all big businesses who sell products. I don’t want to be assassinated, so I am going to keep this part vague… shivers go down my spine… The Godfather, the plastic industry is the one seemingly pulling the strings behind all the shenanigans going on in the belly of beast. They are well represented at this event. Their confident presence here frightens me. It seems everyone else knows to be frightened too, though I doubt anyone here would admit it. There are mentions of not demonising plastic and obfuscating arguments claiming micro-beads are caused by the rubber tread that comes off car tires. This is misleading. Micro-beads are the tiny plastic balls put in toothpaste and exfoliant. What they are talking about is micro-plastic or micro-particles, which has many sources, the biggest which is synthetic clothes.
The plastic industry even gets in a stealthy plug for plastic water bottles by claiming it is ‘farcical’ to think we will not use plastic bottles in the future. New and growing markets demand them. Great pains are being made on the stage to infer the intention is to not remove or reduce packaging, rather, the context is to replace packaging with new designs. There appears to be a bit of a fixation on tiny changes, like the plastic water bottle that has been redesigned so that the lid stays attached after it is opened. Yes, it is great to have a slightly shorter neck and have a way to prevent the lid from causing litter and to ensure it enters the recycling stream, but why is no one suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t be promoting bottled water? Well, that answer is blindingly obvious. How many companies will lose some of their profit if we remove the need for a product such as bottled water?
I look around the room at all the suppliers who are being bamboozled with information that I have studied for years, and I empathise. The lady next to me who sells the best nuts at ALDI – how is she going to change her packaging to accommodate ALDI’s new requirements? And all the other suppliers in the room, who supply massive quantities of product to ALDI, they each are being told they must revisit their packaging.
“We are in unchartered waters. It’s not business as usual, geopolitical and consumer shifts in sustainability have created an urgency towards action, to transform our system and move to a circular economy, creating the need to invest in scalable end of life solutions that will consume Australia’s recyclable resources… We will need to embrace closed loop industry solutions, embrace collaboration and continue to eliminate waste in our supply chain.” — Raphael Geminder, Chairman of Pact Group (one of ALDI’s business partners)
ALDI has done its research and I am very impressed with the support they’re offering their suppliers. A knowledgeable lady speaker explains much of what I already know. I am delighted this information is being presented to a virgin audience – especially people who are in the direct position of making a difference. I also feel a bit guilty. I am one of the reasons they are now confronted with this unpleasant task. The speaker elaborates on a governing body for the plastic industry. I previously tried to investigate this body, and all I could find out was that it was pretty much run by the packaging industry, to regulate itself (a bit like our politicians) but under the guise of being a regulatory body. I learn that recently, it has been revamped and another regulatory body has been formed to help oversee it, and support businesses like the ones in this room, who need education and guidance to make the transition to more sustainable packaging.
There is a huge amount of representation from the whole packaging industry and not just plastics. ALDI have put in some impressive prep work for this event. Next door is a whole room of packaging businesses displaying new and improved packaging options, that suppliers can inspect on the spot.
While ALDI’s goals may seem conservative to some – reduce their reliance on plastic packaging by 25% by 2025 – I feel they are ambitious. Not just because a reduction and improvement are expected by all, but because plastic and its many guises are such an incredibly complicated issue. Here is a quick summary.
Everyday plastic – virgin plastic made from oil by product, not renewable or sustainable.
Recycled plastic – plastic usually degrades when recycled. Often a bottle may only contain 25% plastic because of this. Continual recycling of plastic can weaken and thus contaminate future batches.
Degradable plastic – this is part of the new ‘greenwashing’ term that has quickly entered the market to fool businesses who want to do the right thing. Plastic manufacturers present it as being compostable – they don’t use that word, but people new to researching this, interpret it that way – plastic manufacturers know this. What degradable means is a chemical has been added that helps it to break up into micro-plastic, or as I call it, micro-poison, (only quicker!)
Biodegradable plastic – up until recently, I thought this meant compostable but that is not technically correct. Biodegradable can mean it turns back into organic matter, but there is also another definition, that organic material has been added to help it break up into micro-plastic quickly … complicated enough for you?
Compostable plastic (for example it may be made from corn starch) returns to nature as healthy organic material. But compostable can have two definitions, one meaning it is home compostable and will break down in a backyard compost bin. Another is it will only compost in a large industrial composting facility, which most localities don’t have. Compostable is great if it gets composted correctly, but if not, it can become trapped in landfill and create methane which is bad for greenhouse emissions and climate change.
Bioplastics are made from plant material, but become normal everyday plastic, which cannot be composted. It is promoted as being beneficial because it’s made from a so-called ‘sustainable and renewable source.’ However, the end-product is no more environmentally friendly than regular plastic and will just end up in the regular waste stream. One product is made from second grade sugarcane – creating packaging from a plant that could be used for food, is that really a smart thing to do?
As for recycling, if you put the wrong plastic in the wrong place, it causes havoc. With all the greenwashing on labels, how are everyday people meant to know what goes where? One speaker says there are 200 different symbols for recycling alone and that doesn’t even cover the plastics that are not recyclable. For example, a bioplastic might have a symbol of plant, because it is made from plant – so customers presume it is compostable. But that would be like adding poison to your compost bin. Cross contamination like this happens when any waste item is placed in the wrong bin. All these complex plastics are a recipe for disaster if we do not have the correct facilities, correct collection and a very well-educated public.
We’d benefit from having a true, closed loop recycling system that eradicates virgin plastic, but probably unlikely as plastic degrades when it is recycled. I think the best option is to buy nude food, and for those products that need packaging, use food grade packaging that is made from recycled card or plastic that is home compostable.
My biggest concern with how complicated all this is, is that there is a whopping big loophole. One of ALDI’s main goals states, “The packaging of our exclusive brands will be reformulated to be 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by the end of 2025.” But ‘success’ might just create some lame recycling system, that say, melts plastic and turns it into park benches for example, and suddenly voila! That plastic is recyclable, and they run through that finish line, followed by a victory dance, when in fact, almost nothing has changed. Except everything feels good and consumers keep consuming, the packaging industry does an evil chuckle and that park bench sits somewhere for a couple of decades and then gets dumped in some landfill where it slowly breaks down into micro-poison.
Toward the end of the event, ALDI management allows questions from the audience and has a clever process, where you can log in with your phone to ask your question, which will be presented to the panel for discussion. I am not here to drink the Kool-Aid; I am here to learn and to use the opportunity the best I can to effect change and promote our cause. I nervously and determinedly type and submit my question. I’m anxious – soon my name and our hashtag will appear on those two huge screens on the stage, and everyone will be searching the room for me. A brave move for someone who planned to hide up the back. I see all the other questions get approved except mine. I think that speaks volumes. And for proof, I took a screenshot.
One of the questions for the panel resonated with me. “How do you balance the consumer demand for loose fruit and vegetable vs sustainable packaging?” I found the response from Daniel Baker of ALDI Australia upsetting though…
“Our goals aren’t necessarily saying we want to eliminate plastics and packaging, rather we want to find better uses or more sustainable or more responsible alternatives.” — Daniel Baker, Corporate Responsibility Director, ALDI Australia.
At the conclusion of the event, I ask if I can speak to Oliver the Australian founder of ALDI. I receive a shocked look and resistance from my lovely hosts/minders. He’s clearly not on my list of potential people to interview. I’m aiming too high and have clearly departed from the script. I’m informed I’ll be matched up with an executive, who will give me the company answers. I say, “I don’t want company answers. I want a real conversation and I want to speak with the tall man… please.” The nice lady says she will try to arrange it and will return in a few minutes. I head to the bathroom, take my jumper off and put my jacket back on to hide my shirt, and race back out. Oliver and another friendly executive approach me. I whip my jacket off and surprise them with my t-shirt emblazoned with the #PlasticFreeProduce logo for a photo. My little act of eco-rebellion. I only have a fleeting few minutes with someone who has the power to make decisions – someone who I need to hear my message. Although my goal is to change the entire system, the entire way we buy our food, for the time frame I am gifted, I decide to focus on something that represents the madness of plastic addiction – bagged bananas. I start out by quoting one of the speeches I just listened to which claimed ALDI would choose the low hanging fruit – the quick, easy changes to implement first. I ask Oliver Bongardt, Managing Director, ALDI Corporate Buying, “What could be easier than to remove the bag rolls near the bananas in your stores and put up a sign encouraging customers to not use bags for bananas?” I am surprised at the immense and immediate resistance that comes back at me. Such a small request, yet he’s reactive and claims he does not want to offend their customers, who expect to be able to use the bags.
At this point, I wish I had said, “Well you taught your customers to use them, you can train them to not use them.” And I would love to have told him about the experiment I performed in Coles. Their banana display had two rolls of plastic bags, and every customer I watched, took a plastic bag and placed their bananas inside. I removed the bag rolls and went outside and watched through the front glass window. There was an immediate change in customer behaviour; they looked perplexed, like they weren’t sure what to do. Some just put their bananas in their trolley loose and others searched about, feverishly grabbing bags from other displays. I went back inside and put ‘No Bag Needed’ signs on the stands that held the bag rolls and went back outside to observe. Immediately the amount of people bagging their bananas dropped to about 20% with about 80% happy to buy nude bananas. To me, this indicated that customers want to follow the rules. They will read the signals and look for reassurance about what the store expects of them. No one looked offended and no one put their bananas back or stormed out in a huff.
But even if I did have a chance to tell Oliver this story, I don’t think it would have made a difference. For the next few minutes he politely argues with me. I offer solution after solution and he rebuts with objection after objection. You see, they don’t want to change the system. They don’t want to promote nude food. This room is full of people from the plastic industry, the whole undercurrent is that they will be looked after and remain in control, while pretending they are not. Perhaps I do not realise in this moment, but his reaction may not be about offending their customers, but rather, offending the plastic industry.
I am saddened, that with all the immense and passionate talk about the terrible environmental impact of plastic on our environment… the discussions about reducing plastic… and the brave initiatives they are announcing, that not once, does anyone from the platform… say they would encourage people to buy #PlasticFreeProduce… which in my mind is the absolute easiest place to start.
Before writing this blog post, I sent a polite email to ALDI’s PR team, saying I was actually concerned about this issue, along with the issue of the large plastic bags in the boxes of nude food, which creates a plastic footprint that myself and my supporters do not want. I was hoping for a personal response, a positive promise I could include here, but instead, I received a ‘cut and paste’ reply. My moment of genuine interaction has vanished like the quickly extinguished flame on a little wooden matchstick.
Despite my frustration, I am pleased ALDI have bravely taken tentative first steps, and shown a degree of courage to be the first supermarket in Australia to announce these changes, and for the risky move of inviting me to peek behind the curtain.
Should they like to switch from corporate speech to real dialogue, they know where to find me. And for my supporters, I thank each one of you. My voice only holds power if you show publicly that you support me. One loud voice echoed by 5% of the population… we’ve got this.
I ride that long escalator up out of the lion’s den, unscathed with my complementary bag containing cutting edge packaging samples. The lovely executive whom I met with Oliver, is leaving too. He asks if I have my gift, the ALDI branded recycled and recyclable coffee cup. I smile and politely reply, “It’s OK thanks, I don’t need it.”
I step off the escalator, leave the hotel lobby and am hit by the icy winter wind. I wrap my jacket tight, preparing for the long journey to my little house in the country. I turn left, and the ALDI executive, turns right, heading back into his corporate world. He stops, turns to me, and with a beautiful smile says, “I want you to know, your words did not go unheard.”