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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#010 Dune Ives on Lonely Whale, Tom Ford, Collaboration and The Plastic Innovation Prize

How do we address the system and not just the symptom? How can we actually affect behavioural change? Why are collaborations so hard and yet important accelerate innovation? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale, as well as hearing about their collaboration with Tom Ford for the Plastic Innovation Prize.

Dune Ives has over 20 years of expertise in corporate sustainability, global philanthropy and marine conservation, and a PhD in Psychology. She has worked in a big accounting firm, the utility sector, to helping Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, to build out their philanthropic portfolio, and now Lonely Whale.

Lonely Whale is an incubator for courageous ideas that drive impactful, market-based change on behalf of our ocean and was co-founded by Actor-Activist Adrian Grenier and Producer Lucy Summer. Under Dune Ives’s leadership as CEO, Lonely Whale’s efforts to reduce ocean-bound plastic has been celebrated by Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas, Huffington Post’s Top Ten Movers and Shakers in Environmental Sustainability in 2017, and highest honours from the Effy, Shorty, and ADDY Awards in 2018.

We chatted on the Live Wide Awake podcast, which you can listen to in full here, and below enjoy a few highlights. We talk about little fish making big global waves, why vulnerability is vital too meaningful partnerships, and how to get big allies like Tom Ford to collaborate.

On getting people to care about the ocean…

I had the great fortune to meet the late Paul Allen and his sister Jody and joined their team to create their first philanthropic portfolio focused on wildlife conservation and trafficking issues, climate change, and ocean health. During that time he asked this really important, and I think the right question, that propelled me to then leave and join the Lonely Whale; “how do you get people to care for the ocean?” And I think it was because he knew that as one of the world’s richest men, with so many assets available to him, he could put all of those assets, money and resources towards solving these issues. But at the end of the day, if we don’t actually care for the ocean, it doesn’t really matter how much money he puts into it or any billionaire for that matter?

We really have to start caring for the ocean. And what I learned when I first joined Lonely Whale is that what it really comes down to is we have to care for each other. We had this opportunity to begin to experiment with how we really communicate with people in a way that naturally leads them to want to be curious about the issue and find their own way in that allows them to experiment, not to be shamed and not to feel bad that they failed in their attempt. Oftentimes you start once and if you don’t succeed and you don’t try again. But in behaviour change, to create a habit you have to continue practising these really hard to change behaviours.

On not needing to be perfect to be part of the solution…

Caring is a multifaceted thing to create and what we’ve learned at Lonely Whale is that people care for things that are personal them. Even if someone hasn’t experienced the ocean, there are ways to personalise the ocean for them that allows them to imagine their relationship with the ocean and to create a sense of care. We help to create care for the ocean through our seemingly funny lighthearted uplifting campaign that we called affectionately Stopped Sucking. Because people could personalise the content, they could tell us what their commitment was to save the ocean in their own special way. There was no judgment and we made it very easy for them to get engaged and there was a high reward for participating in the campaign.

We also continued to share with them the collective impact they were having. We had over 40 countries in the first three months participating in the campaign. We come at behaviour change and habit forms through very lighthearted, easy to access entry points where we don’t talk like scientists, even though it’s science-based, and we don’t name and shame at all. We just give opportunities for people to really engage. And I think that’s helped them feel like they have a say and that they don’t have to be perfect to be a solution. They can be who they are and we welcome them.

On system gaps with plastic…

We have system gaps that exist. For example, if we want companies to switch to products that have a more positive impact on the environment, we need to provide those products. For our #StopSucking straw campaign, there wasn’t one strong manufacturer that we could find that we felt like could scale to meet the challenge, from both a human as well as an environmental standpoint. And you can’t offer one product to a giant company like Starbucks. They actually need duplicity in the supply chain to be able to make a big shift.

The second system gap is that virgin plastic is so cheap, and the price of recycled plastic is so high in comparison. And our recycling infrastructure all over the world, not just in the United States, but elsewhere cannot scale to meet the challenge that we are facing right now.

So we can talk all we want about a vision for a better planet, of a plastic-free ocean, we can get people riled up, we can get them excited about the change that’s coming. But if the market can’t scale to meet that demand, then we’ve really done a disservice. And so what we do at Lonely Whale is we work both on consumer education, and behind the scenes with the entire supply chain to make sure we have the products, and that those products can scale. And that’s led to this concept of 52 Hertz, our advisory service, where we are addressing the system gaps.

On film plastic…

Thin-film plastic (for flexible film plastic) is a very generic term for a lot of things that are in our daily lives. If you’re at an airport and you see luggage that is shrink-wrapped, that’s been filmed. If you get a product shipped to you and it has bubble wrap in it, that’s been filmed. If you buy toilet paper at the grocery store and it has plastic wrapped around it. Thin film is also found in the sandwich and storage baggies that we use on a daily basis. In the US, we use between 50-1500 per year per family that equates to a lot of single-use and non-recycled plastic baggies. We also use 300 billion thin-film plastic poly bags globally every single year. These are very hard to collect, virtually none are recycled and there is presently no end of life solution for these bags. Most of them end up in the landfill, and quite a bit ends up in the ocean. So we knew we had to do something about it.

On Tom Ford and the Plastic Innovation Prize…

I had the great fortune of meeting Tom Ford, and I have to say, he’s incredible. We were both just astounded by this gigantic number of 300 billion bags that are essentially not accounted for anywhere and really compelled by this. He and the team are very committed to getting rid of non-essential single-use plastic items in their homes, office and all the way through their supply chain. Now we are working together closely on the Plastic Innovation Prize, which was a perfect fit for us to find the material that can really leapfrog what we currently have and work to dramatically reduce the amount of non-recycled single-use thin-film plastic in the world.

We view the Plastic Innovation Prize as a five-year campaign. We will be working very closely with some of the early stage winners and helping to make sure that they have whatever they need to be successful. It could be anything from looking at manufacturing, policy change, marketing, buyer testing, distribution support and so on. Then seeing these products get into the marketplace, get tested, get feedback from consumers. Then having investors really make sure that these products and these companies have the capital that they need to truly scale and to meet this demand. I look at this prize as an entrepreneur’s and an innovator’s kind of goldmine. We have buyers who are going to be coming to the prize eager to see what the products are that potentially could meet this big demand that we have. And then we have a supportive network of technical advisors, science advisors, who are really going to be able to lend their expertise to these manufacturers and designers so that we can play matchmaker and we can get the best products and the best companies out there.

On collaboration and vulnerability…

Collaboration is really hard and at the root of collaboration is communication and communication is people. And if you want to really be able to collaborate, you have to understand how people are motivated and you have to find ways to make it easy and exciting to work with each other. Good partnership requires people to let their egos go and to find common ground first and foremost. And it’s not easy to do that. I think one of the reasons why is that humans are by nature ego-driven. And so it makes it so critically important that we’re able to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to say, I don’t know, I’m scared. I’m not sure if we can do this.

When you’re vulnerable you can really be open to conversations about changes that need to be made and how to better meet each other’s expectations. I mean, it’s really no different than being married. I’ve been with my husband now for we’re going on 21 years and every day I commit to being married. And that’s a key to staying married. I think it’s the same thing with collaboration with another organisation, every day you have to commit to being vulnerable. When we put the other person’s interests or the other organisation’s interests first, then collaboration can happen. And it’s really magical. When we don’t, when we allow our ego to slip back in and the issues that we’re dealing with take over, it makes it impossible to collaborate. So that’s why I say it’s really hard. And you have to be willing to commit to yourself, to take an honest look about whether or not you are showing up in a vulnerable way.

On the environmental space being the same as the business space…

When you spread yourself too thin and try to meet everyone’s expectations, you often meet no one’s expectations. Which is why prioritisation and being really clear on your unique value add in the environmental space is so important. The environmental space is no different than the business space. Just like a business would work to really hard on its offering, what its value proposition is, environmental NGOs and social NGOs have to do the exact same thing. Ask yourself ‘What is our offer? What are we good at?’ Be mindful of who else is in the same space and think how can you give generously to others, to those organisations so that they not only feel it but they actualize it. Create a real sense of coordination, collaboration and generosity, because there’s definitely a mindset of scarcity in the environmental NGO space which we can shift.

We often shine a spotlight on other organisations and do fundraisers on their behalf, or pull them into our campaigns, and support their campaigns. One of my friends says all the time, “we can raise all boats at the same time”. Two lessons I’ve learned is you have to be willing to be vulnerable and you must lead with generosity. And when you do those two things, then collaboration becomes a whole heck of a lot easier than it currently is for a lot of organisations.

On staying positive…

I’m a Gemini. So there are days when I am not very positive. I have to admit it. Oftentimes I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’m really driven by my 6-year-old son and my 29-year-old daughter. I want the two of them to have a planet that is healthy and is free from plastic pollution. And so as a mom, I have to stay positive. You don’t get to wake up and decide one day you’re going to be depressed. It just isn’t possible. You have to stay positive and optimistic for your kids. But I’m also so inspired by the incredible kids and the power of this network of youth all over the world that we’ve helped to bring together in our ocean heroes network. These are 11-18-year-old kids, and, oh my gosh, they are doing remarkable things. They are passing legislation, they are forcing companies hands, they are inspiring entire communities and school districts and corporations to ditch single-use plastics. They inspire me every single day. So if I need inspiration, I’ll just call one of them to see what they’re doing.

On living wide awake…

What’s happened during the pandemic is that it’s forced all of us to pay attention. You can’t hide in this pandemic. When sheltered at home, you can’t hide from yourself and you cannot hide from your partner or family. So by not hiding, by having our eyes wide open and by paying attention, we are all beginning to see and hear things differently. The choice is ours, whether or not we decide to continue to see, hear and really witness the way that we are today.

In summary…

Three key things I am taking away from this conversation with Dune are:

1. Collaboration is hard. But if we commit to being vulnerable, show up authentically, then we can focus on others instead of being driven by ego and our own issues.

2. When searching for inspiration, look to the youth, their hope and conviction can remind us what the fight is about.

3. Let’s not hide, but live wide awake. It starts with paying attention.

Follow along with Dune Ives and Lonely Whale and listen to the full podcast episode here for more entertaining anecdotes and inspiring ideas from Dune.

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