Environmentalism as a marketing tool: Clearwater Beach nonprofit shows how

Seen last September a gull carries around a plastic straw on Clearwater Beach. The Ocean Allies nonprofit is working to get businesses to become more environmentally friendly, not only for environmental reasons, but marketing as well.  Times (2018)
Seen last September a gull carries around a plastic straw on Clearwater Beach. The Ocean Allies nonprofit is working to get businesses to become more environmentally friendly, not only for environmental reasons, but marketing as well. Times (2018)
Published Aug. 1, 2019

CLEARWATER — A beach nonprofit is using a novel tool in the fight against ocean pollution: peer pressure.

Ocean Allies, which formed in 2018, offers local businesses a simple trade.

The group certifies businesses as ocean friendly if they meet criteria stipulated by the nonprofit. Among other rules, certain single-use plastics are banned. Businesses can't have plastic foam anything. And they have to be active recyclers. Ultra-sustainable businesses can earn "platinum" status from the group if they meet 11 different criteria.

In return for their efforts — and an annual fee of about $100 — businesses get to brand themselves as ocean allies, broadcasting to consumers that they care about their surroundings.

"If someone comes to me and says, 'This is going to cost me money up front' I'll say, well do you want more guests?" said Ocean Allies CEO David Yates.

Related story: Plastic pollution in Tampa Bay is bigger than straws. Here's what local advocates are doing

So far, 33 local businesses have been certified, according to the Ocean Allies website. Founder Sheri Heilman of Bob Heilman's Beachcomber restaurant says that number is increasing all the time.

Ocean plastics are an international scourge. According to National Geographic, some 18 billion pounds of plastic enter the oceans from coastal areas every year. Those plastics directly harm wildlife and take decades or centuries to fully decompose.

Clearwater sustainability coordinator Sheridan Boyle noted plastics are also made of fossil fuels. When consumers buy them, they increase demand for those, which contribute heavily to climate change.

The sheer magnitude of the problem has led some activists to call for government bans of polystyrene — plastic foam — and certain single-use plastics, such as bags or straws. (The environmental efficacy of those bans has been fiercely debated.)

But Yates, who is also the CEO of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, said the group's argument is economic as much as it is environmental.

"We're not an activist group," Yates said. "We're not out to make people feel bad."

Consumers — particularly tourists — seek out green vacation spots, Yates tells business owners. If Clearwater Beach is seen as eco-friendly, tourists will continue to flock to it.

Evidence to that effect specific to Pinellas County is hard to come by. A 2017-2018 report by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater asked visitors how the area could improve their experience. None of the 4,100-plus respondents appeared to have mentioned anything about making the destination more eco-friendly.

There is more general evidence that people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly brands, said University of South Florida St. Petersburg marketing professor Phil Trocchia. And Heilman said she has saved money since her businesses made the switch away from harmful plastics.

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Ocean Allies' market-first thinking has a fan in the Florida Retail Federation, an industry group that has fought local bans on single use plastic bags in court and in the halls of the Legislature.

"We don't want government telling an owner how to run their business," federation spokesman James Miller said. "If you give businesses an opportunity, they will make positive choices."

Miller contended that plastic bag bans don't eliminate litter, they just force people to litter a different material.

Related Story: Publix embraces plastic bag ban in South Carolina, so why not in Florida?

Government bans are, by their nature, top-down policies. They may ruffle feathers, causing consumers and businesses alike to change long-established behaviors on a dime. But bans are effective at drastically reducing the use of certain products, said Asoo Vakharia, a University of Florida Warrington College of Business professor.

The question then becomes: are those aims worth ruffling those feathers? St. Petersburg said yes last year when it banned plastic straws and foam.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature has decided that when it comes to single-use plastics, the answer is no. A 2008 law prohibited local governments from banning plastic bags. This year, only a veto from Gov. Ron DeSantis nixed a similar measure for plastic straws.

Ocean Allies establishes a bottom-up approach. In June, group officials called a meeting of local restaurant suppliers at the Beachcomber restaurant to discuss the changes their clients may soon be requesting.

"Groups like this who are doing what you're doing is forcing change," said one attendee at the meeting, Ken Fraser — a regional sales representative for the green disposables company Eco Products.

Fraser added in a subsequent email that he's seen increased demand for his company's offerings in recent years.

Heilman presided over the meeting. She said the transition of her own businesses to ocean friendly status was at times rocky. Some products that purport to be biodegradable are actually not, Heilman discovered.

That's why close communication with suppliers is so important to the sustainability push, Heilman said.

Also important to the push? Branding. Consumers — particularly younger consumers who are more likely to be environmentally conscious in the first place — identify more with brands that take a stance on issues that matter to them, Trocchia, the marketing professor, said.

Just as companies attract issue-oriented patrons, customers can push companies toward stances they care about, Vakharia, the business professor, said. According to his research, educating consumers may be more important than the regulatory action of any government or nonprofit.

That kind of education is central to Ocean Allies' mission, Heilman said.

Boyle, the city's sustainability coordinator, said Ocean Allies is moving the local conversation forward.

"Through reinforcement of positive choices, that has the benefit of stigmatizing negative choices," Boyle said.

Contact Kirby Wilson at or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.