Business as usual or a new chapter for environmental action?
To caveat this article, this is not intended to downplay the importance of Coronavirus and the widespread effects it is having on global health. I would also like to recognise the people who have suffered and the people who are on the front lines working non-stop to end this pandemic.
As the world stops spinning and humanity comes closer together to face a common enemy, streets are now becoming vehicle free and the smog is lifting from previously polluted skies. The noise of planes has all but vanished, but bees are still pollinating and whales are still migrating the vast expanses of the ocean. For now.
It’s by chance that at the same time that this is happening, I am reading a book about the future of the planet called The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells whilst isolating in the countryside - looking out of the window at blue skies, rolling green hills and trees being buffeted by the wind. The book is not written by an environmentalist. In fact, the author admits that he eats burgers and travels by plane and buys gifts for Christmas. He is a privileged person living a privileged life, but who has compiled a book of scientific predictions of what lies ahead for humanity if we don’t cut back on our consumerist culture and take action to stop climate change.
The global machine hasn’t stopped churning its cogs since the last slowdown of this scale - the second world war. In a relentless effort to satisfy demand, products and services are created and supplied. This endless supply and demand, creating convenience like never before, using finite resources, emitting greenhouse gases, affecting biodiversity, has just been interrupted for the first time since it switched on. In a perceived global crisis, governments have taken dramatic action to alter the trajectory of humanity and save the lives of our most vulnerable. Legislation which, in normal times, would have taken months and years to pass has been passed in a matter of days, with limited protest from the public, but rather an understanding about the severity of the crisis and a widespread consensus that we must take action by stopping what we are doing. Borders are closed. Austria will not allow social gatherings of more than 5 people. You are fined up to 25,000 EUR if you leave your house without reason in Spain and pubs have closed across Britain. 2.9 billion people are under lockdown. We are living in unprecedented times and we are facing an enemy that unites us all.
I wonder, although it isn’t staring us as closely in the face, if the perceived crisis of: Having wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970; The expected doubling of ocean plastic by the end of the next decade; The potential 1.5 degrees of warming by 2040; All beaches gone forever, 50% of global food supply lost, $600 trillion in damages, more than twice the wealth of the global economy today and 150 million premature deaths due to air pollution by 2100 - will bring similar action? I’m not so sure.
Although we don’t need to close borders and self-isolate, the longer-term actions of investing in renewables, substituting fossil fuels, stopping deforestation, planting trees, banning toxic substances, halting illegal fishing and poaching, switching to plant-based diets, boosting the sharing economy, using compostable single-use products and adopting reusable products, creating closed-loop systems and moving towards a truly renewable or even regenerative planet seem unlikely. But does the current crisis and the actions taken show us what is possible? In the private sector, LVMH are now using their capabilities to make hand sanitizer. Can BP use their resources to save our climate? In the public sector, the US congress has rolled out $2 trillion in support packages. Could a similar fiscal package be rolled out for a Green New Deal? The 2018 IPCC report states, “limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C would require rapid, far-reaching & unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. Have we not just created unprecedented changes to society overnight? Moreover, these positive activities required to solve climate change also hold great economic and social opportunities.
Yet just recently the self-proclaimed new clean energy company Royal Dutch Shell, was quoted as saying “we’re going to get as much out of oil and gas for as long as we can“. You have to ask, are we in the biggest catch 22 of all time? To truly fix this global challenge we need to sacrifice wealth for a period of time, whilst we reinvest and reconfigure the economy so that we can live on a habitable planet and have that wealth again in the future.
The Sustainable Development Goals have more recently been given to us and provide goals that if achieved would forge a path for social equality and a habitable planet, signed off by every member state of the United Nations (193 countries). Last year we undeniably made strides in the fight against climate change with Greta Thunberg putting a hot poker under our complacency, but now more than ever we can’t just hope for things to solve themselves and go back to our old habits. Everyone at every level needs to become a member of the problem-solving community. Just as communities are pulling together during the COVID-19 outbreak and taking initiative beyond their job description to help solve the current crisis. The situation has forced us to question our reliance on the convenience economy and we are instead focusing on community, thinking locally, buying less and appreciating more what we take for granted, nature included.
In a way, the virus has reduced us all to a level playing field, whilst the vulnerable are most at risk, everyone has a responsibility to protect them. In a similar way we all now have a collective responsibility to take environmental action in our respective jobs and driving seats within society. The bigger the driving seat the bigger the responsibility. But people also have an opportunity to affect change in their communities or even better, switch seats entirely. If you’re an employee, you can tell your company to change something, if you’re a student, you can forge your career, if you’re a board member, you can make the right decisions. It all adds up to an uncontainable pressure cooker which results in action. Perhaps we should take this time now, whilst the roads are quiet and we can look at the clear sky, to contemplate our role on the planet. Can we use this global crisis as an opportunity to reset and if so, how can we reimagine the world we want to live in?
Or is this just hippie thinking? Will the great gears start churning again as we recommence self-destruction? As businesses scramble to get revenue back up again and survive through these tough economic times. We ourselves, an environmental impact company, have to generate revenue to pay salaries and keep our mission alive. Admittedly, we are caught in a similar race, creating reusable products for people to buy and use. We have to ask ourselves, are we just putting more crap into the world that people don’t need or are the people buying our products going to use them for a very long time and the impact we make be net positive?
Perhaps now is the time for businesses to ask these fundamental and difficult questions; can we offer customers transparency over our supply chain, are we minimising our footprint, putting pressure on our suppliers, taking extended responsibility for what happens to our products at end of life and which sustainable development goals is our company going to go above and beyond to create measurable outcomes for.
In our opinion, we still have a long way to go, but with this constantly in mind we feel determined to continue to improve our company’s footprint and are doing supply chain analysis to better pinpoint and eliminate our carbon footprint, investigating new innovative materials to secure 100% recycled or bio-based content, giving our team an extra day of holiday if they avoid air transport, working from home more, looking into how people can upgrade or repair their current bottles, pinning down a closed-loop recycling scheme for our products and applying for BCorp status to monitor this progress. The list is small but growing, but it means we know we are going above and beyond to do good and that we can talk about it and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
Life has been easier than ever, for those in the most developed economies. But this convenience has come at a cost. The bad news is we have a big job ahead reconciling our convenience with renewable living. But the best news of all, is that it will be the most important and fulfilling job of them all.
Message in a bottle brought to you by Will, co-founder at Ocean Bottle