From under-compensated workers, to empty claims and ambiguity in spending practices, this company is hiding a lot behind its blue façade. Let’s dive in.
- Workers who are not upper management are underpaid, work long hours and experience high levels of turnover
- No transparency with regards to worker compensation, general operations, and percentage of profit that is reinvested in cleaning the ocean
- Claim to denounce heavy consumerism yet rely on it to make profits
- They focus on the business first and the environment second
- Only like to receive ‘feed-back’ from supporters by heavily censoring comment sections on social media and giving priority responses to ‘Clean Ocean Club Members’
Navigate this Post:
- Business First, Environment Second: is 4Ocean’s mission based on environment or profit?
- Consumerism is Bad… Unless You’re Buying Our Products: consumerism pollutes the ocean, but 4Ocean needs you to buy as many bracelets as possible to save it!
- Just Trust Us… But Don’t Look Over There: Lack of transparency leaves a lot of important questions unanswered.
- Final Thoughts: They’re not horrible, but they’re just not that good either.
- Non-Profits to Support Instead of 4Ocean: instead of spending 20$ on a bracelet donate that money to a non-profit!
Three years ago, 2 fresh-out-of-undergrad, idealistic entrepreneurs set out to solve one of the world’s most behemoth tasks: to rid oceans of plastic pollution. These two individuals, Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper witnessed ocean pollution first-hand on a trip to Bali where they were struck by how much garbage was lining the shore. On that trip, they vowed to dedicate the rest of their lives to cleaning their surfing waters; and this is how 4Ocean was born.
How do they operate? They claim to scour oceans and coastal regions collecting floating debris which they then recycle and use to create beaded bracelets. Ingenious, right? The world seems to think so! 4Ocean has received international recognition for the work they’ve done, and everyone seems happy to support them. I was once a 4Ocean enthusiast as well, having purchased a bracelet in attempts to quell my consumer guilt with the idea that I was giving back to the environment. However, after 2 months of wear, the bracelet broke, as did its brilliant illusion. From under-compensated workers, to empty claims and ambiguity in spending practices, this company is hiding a lot behind its blue façade. Let’s dive in.
Business First, Environment Second:
A significant point of contention amongst 4Ocean sceptics is that it is run as a business rather than a non-profit. Their reasoning for this is that a business model allows them to pay their workers. However, while this may seem noble, it is simply not true. Non-profit organizations are capable of paying their workers a living wage and some even employ thousands. The difference is that non-profits are held to somewhat of a higher standard. CEOs are scrutinized for how much they earn and thus are usually paid a lower wage. This begs the question: What do they really care about? The salary of low-level staff, or of the CEO? There are rumblings on several forums and workplace-review pages that lower-level 4Ocean employees are not treated well. They suffer high turn-over, low wages, long hours, and off-loading of work from higher-ups. This is where financial transparency would benefit 4Ocean as it would allow them to demonstrate that fair wages and decent working conditions are standard. However, because 4Ocean is a business, Schulze and Cooper have no obligation to release financial statements, and what is worse, they refuse to. This creates further mistrust between the consumer and company and makes you wonder what they are hiding.
Furthermore, as you dig deeper into the 4Ocean business model, something becomes painfully clear. To continue to be successful, the company needs our oceans to remain polluted. If within the next year our marine ecosystems were magically rid of all plastic, 4Ocean would be obsolete, leaving Schulze and Cooper without a company or paycheck. But it doesn’t look like they will encounter this problem any time soon. Since pulling their first piece of garbage 3 years ago, 4Ocean has collected over 9,000,000 pounds of plastic. This number is impressive yet only a drop in the bucket considering 80 million tons of plastic currently pollute marine life and an additional 8 million tons are added each year. With these numbers, 4Ocean could collect bottles for eternity without ever truly solving the problem. As one disgruntled ex-employee put it, “4ocean is a jewelry company that utilizes the ocean plastic crisis to market bracelets.”
Consumerism is bad… Unless you’re buying our products!
You may still be willing to overlook the problems listed above because, at the end of the day, 4Ocean is still contributing to reducing ocean pollution. You may, therefore, decide to purchase a bracelet and wear it for some time until it breaks or gets lost. What happens after that? Well, the truth is, the bracelet becomes garbage and will likely end up exactly where it was born- in the ocean.
So, in creating a new market for bracelets and other paraphernalia, 4Ocean simultaneously created a new source of pollution. What is worse, is the hypocrisy the company exhibits with regards to this issue. Their social media and websites are littered with recommendations that individuals consume less yet, their entire business model depends on ever increasing consumption of bracelets, t-shirts, water bottles, etc. They would do better to simply collect plastic and sell it to recycling companies that supply existing businesses.
4Ocean did attempt to address this issue by creating the Pound+ program which allows customers to support the brand without buying a bracelet. However, this does not solve the problem, as individuals are still, in some capacity, paying for the production of their products.
Just trust us… But don’t look over there!
Up until this point, we have assumed that 4Ocean operates as advertised. This means, the plastic they collect is recycled and used to make products. Unfortunately, even this aspect is not as it seems. The company is transparent in demonstrating how plastic is weighed, sorted, and compressed on site, however, little information is provided with regards to the actual recycling process. An FAQ page states that 4Ocean products aren’t made completely from collected materials as they are said to be too damaged from ‘UV degradation and contamination’. This reveals that they do not use their own materials to make the bracelets yet does not reveal where or how the actual recycling process takes place.
The FAQ page continues to say that 4Ocean uses facilities in China to recycle post-consumer plastics. However, importation of plastic waste into China was banned in 2018 under the National Sword Policy. So, this raises two very important questions: How are they still exporting recycled materials to China, given the new regulations? And, how has production changed due to the decreased source of inputs? Unfortunately, I was unable to glean anymore information from their website, so I turned to a customer service representative for more answers.
I began by simply asking whether or not 4Ocean was still recycling in China. The representative answered that in the company’s early days, Chinese manufacturers were the only ones willing to work with them as they did not have enough plastic inputs and thus needed to source from elsewhere. They went on to say that 4Ocean hopes to one day recycle their own plastics in company-owned facilities and was working towards this by collecting more and investing in research and development. So, long story short, they are still recycling in China. Although I appreciated the answer, I still had more questions. I continued by asking if they were sourcing their plastic domestically from China and if production had slowed down due to lack of inputs. The import ban has made it very challenging for companies in China to access plastic and thus, 4Ocean operations could have been affected. They responded saying that the company continues to import flakes of plastic and also sources post-consumer plastic domestically in China. They gave no indication as to how production had been impacted.
While their answers were somewhat satisfactory, I still felt there was a lack of transparency. Although I asked very clear and concise questions, I received roundabout responses that only partly addressed my concerns. What is worse, the information was very difficult to access. Some content was located on an obscure part of their website, but I had to email several times for almost a week to get half-answers to my questions. Furthermore, I was asking about critical points in their operations which an environment-first company should be eager and willing to share with the public. While this is frustrating, it is not surprising as this seems to be a common tactic amongst their customer service team. They censor content on social media and their website, turn off comments, block individuals from following accounts, and give customer service priority to ‘Clean Ocean Club’ members. They claim to welcome criticism yet take extensive measures to avoid it.
As we wrap up, it is important for readers understand that I do not believe 4Ocean is an inherently bad company. I believe many of their mistakes could easily be avoided by investing more time and research into operations. For example, if they wanted to advertise that ocean plastic was used to make their bracelets, they should have actually found a way to do that instead of using other post-consumer plastics. Furthermore, they should have been more self-critical and asked themselves: Are we actually helping to reduce ocean pollution? Even though they may not have gained mass popularity without pretty bracelets, they would have done better for the environment by simply selling collected plastic to recycling facilities.
The most pressing issue the company must address is their lack of transparency with regards to employee treatment, recycling operations, and allocation of funds. The front page of their website should be dedicated to demonstrating how their products are made from the moment waste is collected to the final bracelet. They must stop censoring critics as this will only stunt their growth. They should also consider reducing workload and redistributing salaries to promote low-level staff welfare.
Ultimately, I believe that when you spend 20$ on a 4Ocean bracelet, some of your money does go towards cleaning marine ecosystems. However, what we currently don’t know is how much of it goes towards that cause. There are many un-related areas your money likely goes to such as making products, packaging, and advertisements. So, while you may not be doing harm by supporting them, your hard-earned money would likely go a lot farther in the hands of non-profit organization. Good ones to support will be listed below.
Non-Profits To Support Instead of 4OCean:
- Oceana: working towards changing policy to protect marine ecosystems
- Ocean Conservancy: using science and technology to develop sustainable solutions that benefit the ocean
- Coral Restoration Foundation: works to restore coral reefs and educate others on how/why they are damaged and what can be done to save them
- World Wildlife Fund: the world’s most established conservation agency whose actions are based in science and promote innovative solutions on both local and global scales
- Nature Conservancy: one of the oldest and most well-known non-profits working to conserve species both on land and in the water
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