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Thoughts on hot air: lesson from a balloon drop

Mabi David and Carissa Pobre reflect on lessons from an abandoned balloon drop.

The backlash was swift and strong. No sooner had the announcement for a record-breaking New Year’s Eve balloon drop been made than calls for its immediate cancellation.

Social media channels were abuzz with disapprovals when one of Metro Manila’s largest entertainment spaces – touted as the biggest and newest in Southeast Asia – declared it would ring in 2019 with a record-setting balloon drop. Environmental watchdog EcoWaste Coalition condemned the event as “hollow entertainment” of “record-breaking wastefulness,” while Climate Reality Project called the indoor release of 130,000 balloons “wasteful, unsustainable, and ecologically apathetic.” The hashtag #DropBalloonDrop was trending, and an online petition asking for the equivalent number of signatures started.

In hindsight, cancelling the balloon drop stunt entirely did not take long, not given the knock-on effects that riled up citizens in a country that is one of the world’s leading plastic polluters. Tremendous volumes of garbage — much of which comprises single-use plastic items as economically-popular as they are environmentally-detrimental — continue to choke the country’s waterways, and citizens response to the plastic problem gains momentum in the Philippines day by day. To date, despite progressive legislation on waste management (enforcement being another matter), nothing mandates greater responsibility on companies for the excessive amounts of plastic they create and release to the market — at least not yet.

Hundreds of thousands of plastic balloons may be a ‘no-brainer’: it’s not complicated to condemn and reject their sheer spectacle (and the folly that balloon dropping is something the Guinness World Records no longer monitors exactly because of its negative environmental impact). Within less than two weeks since the balloon drop event’s announcement, the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) called on the organisers to stop the activity. It sealed the deal and quickly turned the cancellation into an environmental win that happily, still cautiously, signalled a different consciousness to begin the new year.

For businesses, it’s worth considering the learnings that may be had in an age where the pressure to address environmental and social externalities fall on them, and the integrity and credibility of their brands more so in the hands of the public. After the incident, more businesses followed suit and halted their own balloon dropping affairs — from boutique and luxury hotels to large-scale commercial real estate developments. When your environmental practices seem to be ‘hot air,’ brand value diminishes and it’s not easy to recover. So how do companies navigate and respond?


The perils of hot air

In an article published by The Guardian, author Stephen Buranyi investigates what’s behind today’s public outrage over plastic and argues that the disdain has much to do with how it’s ‘smaller, more tangible, it is in your life right now.’ People are ditching plastic straws and stirrers for metal ones, and bans of various scales are in place. Hip zero-waste shops and sustainable markets are popping up, such as Ritual and Good Food Sundays in the Philippines, and Live Zero and Tong Chong Street Market in Hong Kong.

There are numerous enthusiastic responses to address this issue, in many ways motivated by how plastic — a visible, tangible yet impactful material that we can directly control — feels like a solvable problem. But underpinning the backlash of the New Year’s Eve balloon drop episode is what Buranyi describes as the very ‘paradox’ of plastic: on one hand, anti-plastic consumer sentiment swelled throughout social media and pressured the event organisers toward an environmental victory we should all celebrate. At the same time, how much of the negative impacts have really been contained, managed and diverted?

Or, as a Greenpeace spokesperson commented, ‘Although we are happy the event will no longer push through, what do you do with the purchased balloons?’

Therein lies the scale, if somewhat boundlessness of the plastic problem that makes the case for a concerted and collaborative effort across stakeholders to address the crisis – the more people collaborate, the more we just might, as the latest Loop announcement offers some hope. For every straw and single-use plastic that we turn down, thousands still continue to be produced and eventually become refuse. Refusing the straw does not mean it’s not there, and behavioural change can only do so much for as long as the responsibility is outsourced to the consumer, and production remains the same and costs are externalised to the environment.


The life cycle of an environmental callout

Fortunately, the ‘life cycle’ of an environmental callout pushes boundaries. As the #DropBalloonDrop event unfolded, what is unique about the surmounting case against plastic is that the demand for accountability arose from an ecosystem of various publics – from NGOs to consumers to government – that brands facing the plastic issue are more immediately at risk.

It points to a new reality for business, one where corporate accountability is accelerated. A reality where environmental brand audits such as those done by Break Free from Plastic and Greenpeace in 2017 and 2018 exposed the top producers of plastic polluting the country and beyond.

After each clean-up, the call-out; a list of the brand logos found on the plastic trash collected was compiled and released to the public, with the biggest FMCG corporations driving this crisis.

One of the most vocal, active and influential advocates for greater corporate accountability when it comes to plastic pollution, Froilan Grate leverages the power of brands to bring about faster change. As he explains,“Brands carry the heaviest responsibility for the plastic problem. Plastic packaging from brands is endangering wildlife and the health of the oceans, and poisoning the water we drink and the food we eat. But the current commitments on plastic reduction and package redesign means business as usual for at least the next decade. So far corporations have given us lip-service when what is needed is urgent and drastic reduction.”


Demand for transparency and accountability

In this age of greater transparency, call-outs may be here to stay. While the jury is out on the effectiveness of strategies for sustainable change, companies downplaying their impacts or greenwashing their practices will find themselves called out and taken to task.

Today’s consumers influence and control the credibility of brands, some relying on transparency apps and consumer indices to select those whose environmental and social responsibility agendas are not simply hot air. Different sectors are paying attention too: taking inspiration from a name-and-shame strategy, DENR is kicking off a PhP42-billion Manila Bay rehabilitation programme by naming the firms that are polluting the bay and will soon receive notices of violation from the agency.

With the transparency and accountability required to build trust, people will scrutinise both the credibility of the messaging and the company’s actual practice. Brands must carefully communicate how they respond to issues, be willing to clear the air in an environmental gaffe, and find the right solutions that work for them.

To be sure, merely responding to external stimuli, be that compliance requirements, peer or market pressure or risk management will not bring sustainable revenue or impact. Sooner or later, people will grow tired of these scenarios: a restaurant declaring zero plastic commitments but still delivering in plastic bags; an airline that declares no single-use plastic but still serving them on the next flight; and indeed, company celebrations that generate unnecessary, excessive volumes of plastic while touting their coastal clean-ups as corporate social responsibility (CSR).

From consumers to NGOs to government, people will reward companies that move from the reactive to the proactive, particularly those who work fast enough to address pressing challenges and keep up with a rapidly changing environment. Given both the magnitude of the plastic issue and public outrage worldwide, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – no longer suffices. Any business for whom plastic waste is a material impact must now rationalise why, how and what they use plastic for and communicate how it will be addressed and, even better, phased out.


TPB can help you develop your strategy on managing environmental impacts like single-use plastics, and communicating your efforts internally and externally. Contact us to find out how we can help your company thrive.

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