Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Sustainability in the Face of COVID-19
By Saurabh Kumar
Since early March, seemingly every aspect of modern life has changed in the blink of an eye. The reality we knew has come to a crashing halt as the novel coronavirus has torn its way through our communities. The changing landscape has yielded many uncertainties for careers, education, everyday life, and the environment. With the looming threat of irreversible climate change just over the horizon, social attitudes surrounding environmentally conscious behavior and sustainable consumerism have evolved over the last several years. However, with the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion on climate change has become increasingly more complex. The societal shocks of the pandemic have resulted in policy and behavioral changes—both in the personal and corporate spheres—with complicated implications for the environment.
With governmental and social forces compelling individuals to stay at home, many facets of the commercial and consumer world were forced to undergo sudden shifts. The pandemic has resulted in the creation of more waste. Many nations, including the United States, have put a hold on recycling programs for fear that recycling facilities could result in spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, single-use plastic products have resurged as a result of the pandemic. With rising apprehension toward reusable plastic goods, many restaurant chains have stopped using them. Plastic bags have also made a comeback during the pandemic as many states and municipalities such as New York, Massachusetts, California, and others have temporarily lifted taxes imposed on them, though many such taxes have now been reimposed. Disposable masks are proving to be an environmental threat as well, as they commonly appear in litter and waste streams. Dr. Christian Dunn, Director of The Plastic Research Centre of Wales said in an interview with BBC News that the impact of single-use plastics would last forever. The NRDC reports that single-use plastics have had negative effects on marine life and the climate because of their tendency to end up in waterways and the plastic industry’s significant role in greenhouse gas emission.
Individual consumption trends are showing signs that more people are moving towards more sustainable purchasing habits, though. According to research done by the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, sustainably marketed goods accounted for over half of the total market growth for consumer-packaged goods from 2015 to 2019. The study also found that this trend is continuing through the pandemic. While sustainable purchasing habits are not evident in all demographics, they show to be widely prevalent. Tensie Whelan, Director of the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business reports that all demographics besides retirees tend to buy products that are marketed as being sustainable. Additionally, she says, “I think the challenge for some demographics is that the products are not available in the stores they frequent or that the premiums are too high.”
Some trends in the corporate sphere are looking hopeful as well. The slowdown in manufacturing and necessity for emission-producing transportation such as driving, many places around the globe have seen a reduction in air pollutants. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), concentrations of NO₂ and PM2.5 have fallen in many parts of Europe and China. Olivier Jan of Deloitte also suggests that the pandemic will prove to accelerate the positive attitudes surrounding sustainable business that had been on the ride before its onset. Jan believes that the pandemic brings opportunity for increased investment in companies with sustainable business models, and for companies to reimagine their supply chains to be more resilient. Additionally, he believes that the pandemic could be just the right impetus for a more globally united approach to combating climate change that we need and have been waiting for.
While only time will reveal the true future fated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, individual consumer behaviors and foundational changes in supply chain are creating new reasons to believe we could be witnessing promising growth. Although the pandemic has resulted in an increase in waste production, consumer propensity to purchase sustainably marketed products continues to grow, and sustainably marketed goods are accounting for an increasingly large share of overall market growth. Reduced emissions attributed to supply chains have also created measurable improvements in pollution, and the pandemic could serve to accelerate these new and positive shifts in addition to continually progressing attitudes in regard to the value of sustainability.
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