Sustainability in the COVID-19 era and beyondArticle
29, Jun 2020. 11:24am
As someone who tries to live sustainably, COVID-19 has made things complicated. I have used as many single-use items in the last two months as in the whole past year. But can I be angry at myself for wearing rubber gloves when I need to go out, or at grocery stores for not letting me use my own bags? Our society is being pushed to its limits by COVID-19 in many ways, and social and environmental sustainability are no exception.
If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking about how today’s challenges will shape our world on the other side. When asking what our new normal might look like, it’s tempting to look back at what used to be normal as a place of refuge. However, even though we want to move backwards, we must realize that now is the time to build a better, more resilient, and more sustainable normal, especially with things like climate disaster looming.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has also opened the door, especially for businesses, to how we build a new normal that could promise a more secure future. An integral part of defeating this pandemic is defining the values that will help us overcome it and any future crises. Not acknowledging sustainability’s role would be detrimental to the planet. It certainly won’t be easy, but the opportunity to take ownership of our future and pave a new path has never been more tangible.
As Nobel Laureate and Stanford economist Paul Romer said in a 2004 venture capitalist meeting, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” According to him, it is in times of crisis that “priorities are clear, rigid rules and regulations suddenly become pliable, leaders pay attention and are pliable, and change, even far-reaching change, is possible.”
The changes that businesses have made in such a short time is unprecedented, with shifts that are so dramatic they have brought about positive environmental impacts on a scale never seen before. According to a global analysis conducted by Carbon Brief, “the coronavirus crisis could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.” Why not take what this has taught us and use it to build a better future? If we don’t make long-term structural changes, emissions will rebound fast, just as they have after other global crises.
Businesses that continue to ignore their environmental impact risk losing consumers like me—and many millennials—now that we’ve seen what’s possible. That could be a significant loss.
Consumer behavior has changed. According to a survey, conducted recently by Accenture, “45% of consumers said they’re making more sustainable choices when shopping.” This is in spite of the fact that sustainable products are usually more expensive than their disposable counterparts.
Oliver Wright, managing director and head of Accenture’s global Consumer Goods practice, says that the pandemic has “[compressed] into a matter of weeks changes that would likely have taken years.” Looking at pre-COVID-19 consumer trends, rising interest in sustainability is not just a product of today’s circumstances. Joint research by IRI and NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business suggesting that 50% of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products.
What does this mean for brands? Right now, customers across the board are looking to businesses to lead the way. Successful companies will need to make it their responsibility to understand the evolving values of customers and encapsulate them in their brand. Companies now have an opportunity to start adopting sustainable practices into their business while the health of the planet is top of mind with customers.
For example, Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, says that they are “redoubling its work to reduce carbon emissions, water pollution and waste from its operations, and continuing to promote biodiversity.” Other top sustainability officers from companies like Walmart, Starbucks, Nestle, and General Motors are launching similar initiatives.
For decades, corporate leaders have said that financial pressure from stakeholders creates too many limitations on what they can do on this front. However, the extreme circumstances of the pandemic may have helped businesses to overcome those limitations. While unfolding right now, it is more clear than it ever has been that catastrophe is a catalyst for change.
As Kevin Moss, the Global Director of the Center For Sustainable Business, said, “Let this be the beginning, not the peak, of a corporate transformation journey, so that once society is beyond the immediate threats, we move into a refreshed approach to capitalism.” With the immediate challenges we are facing, investing in large, long-term initiatives may not be feasible. But for both individuals and businesses, small changes can lead to big transformation. Here are a few steps you can take now: