While it is safe to say that no-one wanted change to come this way, it is undeniable that the sudden cessation of huge swathes of economic activity across the world has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on our environment, largely due to the drastic reduction in carbon emissions.
However, somewhat counterintuitively, other aspects of the ‘sustainability agenda’, such as our relationship with single-use plastics, have suddenly been thrown into question, as our fear of contamination trumps that of plastic pollution, every day of the week.
While addressing the threat of coronavirus remains the immediate priority, the duality of these unintended consequences begs the question: Will this period of global reckoning help or hinder the fight against climate change?
Single-use plastic – an overnight makeover
The case of single-use plastic is an interesting place to start. Those ‘unnecessary’ layers of packaging that were well and truly on their way out of fashion a mere month ago, are sure looking pretty desirable when it comes to limiting the spread of a pathogen. Keep Cups were the first to go as coffee shops across the country realised their germ-spreading potential and reusable shopping bags may well be next, with states such as Illinois, Massachusetts and New Hampshire placing a temporary ban on their use in stores to help prevent the spread.
While I am not suggesting that these restrictions are here to stay, it is worth considering the impact they may have on how we perceive the essentiality of such items. I know I, for one, find myself eyeing up my beloved tote bag with a new found level of suspicion and questioning my Keep Cup’s motives as it calls out to me from the kitchen cupboard – but then again, that could just be the social deprivation talking.
A tale as old as time?
In a way, what is happening in relation to single-use plastics is the perfect distillation of the age old climate change dilemma. It serves as a harsh reminder that there will always be something more pressing on the agenda, more urgent, that will relegate sustainability further down the list of priorities. I mean, ‘Who’s not in favour of cleaning up the oceans?’, but if plastic wrapping on my veg is going to protect me and my family from a deadly virus, the decision becomes a little more complex.
Understandably, for the vast majority of us climate change is not exactly top of mind as we face into this global health crisis with very real consequences. The economic ramifications of Covid-19 have the potential to exacerbate this effect and erode support for climate action as we shift our focus from long-term challenges, to short-term survival. Historically speaking there has been an inverse relationship between the public’s concern about the environment and that of the economy. Afterall, there is only so much existential worrying one can do.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented outcomes!
That being said, history is not always doomed to repeat itself and, as we’ve heard endlessly as of late, ‘these are unprecedented times’. We are living through a period of profound change, the likes of which none of us have ever experienced, and there are a number of reasons that I remain optimistic about sustainability in the post-Covid era.
1. Change is possible
First and foremost it has proven, unquestionably, that global, systematic change is possible and that, once the reality of a threat is understood and a clear path to mitigation is outlined, it can happen a lot quicker than any of us could have imagined. As I said at the beginning, no-one would wish for this situation, and a global pandemic is not to be seen as an environmental opportunity, but there are some things that you just can’t unsee, and seeing that such drastic action can be taken in favour of the greater good is the slimmest of silver linings to the large coronavirus cloud.
What is even more remarkable in my opinion is the rate at which we have adjusted to this new normal. Coronavirus is producing a mass behavioural change experiment and, so far, the conclusions are relatively positive. By and large we are making significant lifestyle changes, the likes of which we would have previously deemed impossible, and are proving ourselves to be more adaptable than we thought. This bodes well for brands that are willing to lead the way in driving sustainable behaviour amongst their consumers. Once change is enforced, we normalise it quicker than you might think!
2. New habits are forming
We also know from behavioural science that interventions are more effective if they take place during moments of change. Essentially, it is much easier to form a new habit when your normal routine is broken.
What is promising, from a sustainability perspective, is the nature of the ‘new habits’ that the current situation is mandating, such as minimising travel as we work from home, reducing food waste as we shop more mindfully and generally recalibrating our consumption patterns. All of which also happen to be beneficial to the planet. These changes may have come about in an unexpected way, but they are likely to have a lasting impact on consumer behaviour ‘post lockdown’ as we try to hang on to some of the positive adjustments we have made in our own lives.
3. People are reconnecting with their natural environment
Last, but certainly not least, has been our forced reconnection with nature. When a daily outdoor excursion is the only event in your social calendar, you find yourself appreciating the fresh air with new found enthusiasm. Rare images being shared of rubbish-free rivers and smog-free cities stand in stark contrast to the usual and not only highlight the level of pollution that we have come to accept as the norm, but also provide a window into an alternative parallel universe of how things could be. You know what they say, you can’t be what you can’t see, so now that we’ve been reminded of what a less polluted world looks like, we may be more motivated to work towards it, and support brands that do the same.
As well as outdoor exercise we are also seeing a huge spike in gardening in response to the pandemic, but so-called ‘crisis gardening’ is not new. A report by the National Gardening Association found that households in the US growing their own food increased by 11% in the last recession, with the majority of newcomers citing economic conditions as a major factor in their decision. While it is unlikely that the majority of these people will become self-sufficient, the very act of producing food can completely reframe your relationship with it. In a recent interview I was lucky enough to conduct with Michael Kelly, founder of the G.I.Y (Grow it Yourself) Organisation, he explained to me that their entire movement is based on this very insight, that ‘the most effective and compelling way to get people to make more sustainable food choices is to grow even 1% of their own’.
So while our lockdown-induced nature love affair may be temporary, I have every reason to believe that this is more than just a spring-fling and may well change the course of our relationship for many years to come.
So what can my brand take away from this?
1. One of the most powerful tools in the response to Covid-19 has been positive reinforcement. Think of the endless memes calling us heroes for sitting on the couch and the infinite ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ GIFs plastered on our housebound pictures like a badge of honour. It feels good, like your daily contributions matter and are part of something bigger. How can your brand facilitate this feeling for people in relation to sustainability? Think about devices to socialise and reward good behaviour and fuel the collective experience. Any strategy that makes people feel good is usually a winner, particularly as we face into inevitably tough times ahead.
2. This forced period of reflection will cause many to question some of their previous lifestyle choices. Think about how your brand can acknowledge this shift in perspectives and frame your product, service or sustainability initiatives as a way to hold on to some of the positive changes people are making going forward.
3. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to sustainability is how far removed we have all become from where the items we consume come from. The Covid-19 crisis has brought this into sharper focus as we have a new found respect for our suppliers and supply chains. As a business if you are lucky enough to work with great sustainable suppliers there has never been a more important time to highlight their great work and show your support, alongside your customers.
We’ve witnessed our capacity to accept and adapt to new circumstances when it’s perceived to be for the common good, to listen to science, and use power primarily for the protection of the vulnerable. Most importantly, we see humans united and powerful in adversity, even when we’re forced apart. So, yeah, I’d say there is still plenty to be optimistic about!