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Preventing Plastic Waste Is a Global Crisis—and an Investment Opportunity

Ever since China stopped importing nearly all forms of plastic waste last year, governments and companies have struggled to find alternative ways to dispose of their garbage.

But now, investors and producers are beginning to see the plastic waste crisis as an opportunity instead of a problem, said Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of Circulate Capital, speaking at Fortune’s Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China on Thursday.

Kaplan founded Circulate Capital in direct response to the global plastic waste issue: the investment firm finances companies and infrastructure that prevent the flow of plastic waste into oceans and promote circular economies. Kaplan said his investors include Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and Dow—huge multinationals who are also big producers of plastic waste.

Multinationals’ interest in reducing and repurposing plastic waste, Kaplan said, “is a signal of how serious this issue has become for these companies” that have historically been less than enthusiastic about championing environmental progress.

“I’ve been in the environmental space for 20 years. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a topic driven from almost obscurity to priority number one on a global scale so fast,” Kaplan said, referring to the attention the plastic waste issue is garnering from both corporations and consumers.  

Some companies, like Pernod Ricard, the second-largest wine and spirits maker on the planet, are dedicated to reshaping themselves around sustainability and circular manufacturing.

Vanessa Wright, Pernod Ricard’s vice president for sustainability, said at the forum that consumers are increasingly attracted to brands that are committed to environmentally-conscious conduct on a deeper than surface level.

Wright pointed to the success of Absolut Vodka, which is owned by Pernod Ricard and whose distillery was one of the first carbon-neutral ones in the world.

 “It’s a brand with a social and environmental purpose,” Wright said. “And I think increasingly, consumers are looking for that, as well as, by the way, looking to join companies who are doing that. It’s a real winner, I think, in terms of talent attraction.”

Pernod Ricard’s financial results last year were its strongest in over a decade. Wright credits the company’s commitment to sustainability, which she sees as important not just for minimizing business risk but for driving innovation and resilience in the long-term.

Wright, who spearheaded Pernod Ricard's elimination of plastic straw usage and its shift towards more environmentally-friendly product packaging, added that she thinks profit and sustainability “don’t have to sit apart from each other.”

“I think that’s really the strong message we’re giving to investors,” Wright said. “If you’re building brands for the long-term, and when you’ve got brands like Chivas Regal and Martell that are 300 years old, you have to sustain them and you have to build them in the right way for the future.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Watch here: Fortune Global Sustainability Forum 2019 livestream
—Impossible Foods wants China to make its own meat
—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
—China’s Yangtze river basin—the world’s third-largest economy—is at great risk
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