By Luca A. Zerbini, Former Amcor VP, C-Level Executive and Non-Executive Director.
I have worked in business for over 20 years now, and the events of 2020 are like no other global event in terms of the potential opportunities COVID-19 could offer companies looking to rejuvenate their sustainability practices.
Indeed, sustainability offers a new lens and an opportunity to critically review the way in which we carry out work; from reducing the use of natural resources in favour of a more circular economy (raw materials/energy/water/waste) to a more local, faster and flexible supply chain with onshoring or nearshoring. We are living in a crucial period and ever closer to a time where the changes we’ve made to the natural environment will no longer be reversible, and we will bear witness to ever more natural disasters impacting our homes, our way of living and our economies. As a result, we are seeing a strong amount of interest and concern from consumers and the general public (particularly from Millennials and GenZ), intense focus from governments (in Europe, Switzerland and California), NGOs (WWF, Pew, EMF, WEF, etc) and continued pressure felt by FMCGs, retailers and those operating in the world of fashion, transportation, travel and energy.
COVID-19 has shown that the temporary slowdown in emissions during lockdowns have resulted in cleaner skies and much less polluted air. However, this will have a negligible impact if we do not make it permanent. We need large-scale, structural interventions that take the world permanently away from its addiction to fossil fuels and away from linear economies that generate tons of waste, in turn impacting nature and natural resources.
As a result, businesses of all sizes now stand up and take accountability for how their decisions and actions affect the environment in a wider sense. The Global Commitment of the New Plastics Economy at the EMF is a great example, in which each company has increased the level of transparency about its own activities in this space and has shared which targets they want to achieve until 2025. Those targets are by and large aligned, fostering an increased level of collaboration, where typically the more experienced larger companies can take the lead (Unilever, Mars, Pepsico, etc) and share knowledge with smaller companies that typically do not have the same capabilities or resources. Companies can also leverage industry associations (e.g. the Consumer Goods Forum), who are structuring themselves to support on sustainability, NGOs deeply committed to this cause, industry and value chain players and, of course, the governments themselves.
Sustainability has finally hit the mainstream and it is not going to go away, problems are mounting globally. Forest fires, extreme heatwaves, devastating droughts and terrifying floods are commonplace in too many countries. Lots still needs to be done, BUT we see some reasons for hope. Northwest and Central India suffered severe heatwaves, swarms of desert locusts destroyed nearly 50,000 hectares of cropland and super cyclone Amphan battered the Eastern coast, causing thousands of deaths and an estimated 13 billion US dollars in damage, devastating the fragile Sunderban mangroves. However, India is working hard on the underlying causes: it is among the six G20 economies that are projected to meet their unconditional Paris targets with current policies. At the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Prime Minister Modi announced that India would raise its target for restoring degraded land from 21 million hectares to 26 million hectares by 2030. What’s more, forest and tree cover has increased in India, reaching just over 80 million hectares, around a quarter of the geographical area of the country.
On the other hand, in many places, a lot of work remains to be done: COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease – transmitted from animal to human. Human expansion into wild spaces and increasing exploitation of species is bringing us closer to animals and the diseases they harbour (together with many other deadly diseases like Ebola, SARS, HIV, Lyme disease and Lassa fever.)
Most countries whose economies have been hit hard by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown will look to revive the economy and create jobs after the pandemic. Such economic revival will be critical, and sustainable practices are the best way to meet companies and government commitments – on plastic pollution, climate and land degradation – but also to increase and stretch these in order to bring economies back to growth.
Given that a single zoonotic outbreak can incur trillions of US dollars in costs across the globe, economic recovery focused on climate action and a healthy natural world is the best means of long-term prosperity. There are ample opportunities for governments to simultaneously address environmental objectives and ensure that recovery leads to more sustainable outcomes overall. But the green economic recovery cannot succeed without the full engagement of the private sector: business leaders have identified the top five global risks for the next ten years as environmental: climate change, loss of nature and pollution are very high among them. Global industry leaders across a range of sectors have made significant efforts at promoting clean and efficient energy, water and waste management, as well as creating green supply chains and promoting the concept of circular economy. We need such initiatives to become more broadly based and spread to the medium, small and micro-enterprise level. This is a huge opportunity for everyone to embrace sustainability as a way of working and as part of any key decision-making process.
It’s been made abundantly clear from a range of surveys carried out since the start of the pandemic that sustainability has once again become a high concern for consumers. Following the end of the first lockdown in the UK, as cases of the virus began to fall and Covid-19 was less of a ‘life and death’ issue and even during the last few months, the topic of businesses maintaining their sustainable practices and promises has been consistently the only theme competing with the likes of Brexit and Covid-19 as front page news across publications in the wider western world.
Sustainability has had to stay front of mind for most companies throughout Covid-19 for a multitude of different reasons. On the operations and procurement side, contrary to common belief it actually allows businesses to dramatically reduce costs, by lowering the typical targets of energy use, Co2 emissions, water usage and waste. This is achieved both internally and also across the entire value chain, including all suppliers who then are forced to raise their attention to sustainability matters (what is typically known as Scope 1, 2 and 3 by sustainability experts). Practices of this kind allow companies and its suppliers to work together as honestly and as transparently as possible during such unprecedented times.
Finally, it is apparent following the recent “call for action” for a UN treaty on plastic pollution, that companies leading on the sustainability agenda are putting pressure on others to sign their manifesto, together with EMF, WWF and many other government and NGOs. The attention focused on sustainability is not being diminished whatsoever, and if anything, people have more time in the current climate to dedicate the time to it. For example, with the huge increase in the number of individuals working from home and limiting themselves to essential journeys only, society as a whole has been given the chance to reflect and see how the limited traffic has reduced pollution in cities and the air quality has reverted back to that of days long gone by. The new routines of individuals around the globe has also impacted less carbon emissions due to fewer cars on the roads and plane journeys.
With so many restaurants having to close or limit the number of diners they can accept at any one time, families are also eating more at home than before the pandemic began, meaning that more of an emphasis has been put on the packaged goods and foods being purchased for the home, with many only wanting to invest in items and brands using sustainable packaging.