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3 Ways the Coronavirus Outbreak Can Lead to a More Sustainable Future

Although the danger to our health is currently very present and very real, experts expect this crisis will at some point pass, and we will be able to resume our normal lives with a renewed sense of appreciation. The question is, what will a return to “business as usual” look like?

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis that is changing the world. The United Nations recently released a report entitled, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity, calling on the global community to work together to slow the spread and fight the virus. From science to business to our daily routines, the pandemic is changing the way the world operates.

Most people are still reeling to adjust to disrupted supply chains, quarantining and coping with uncertainty, while wondering what’s in store for our post-virus world. Many sustainability experts are hopeful that halting business as usual on a global front provides an opportunity to rethink our commitment to climate change. Here are three ways that change is on the horizon.

1. Greater effort on cutting carbon emissions

It’s hard to overlook the swift and sudden response to COVID19 in comparison to the much slower response to the other crisis facing humanity: Climate change. As May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said in a recent interview with Fast Company: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time … It shows that it’s possible for this kind of mobilization of resources to take place in a short amount of time. In that sense, that’s encouraging.” Comparing disease outbreaks and climate change, Boeve also pointed out that in both cases, those most vulnerable are affected in greater ways: “So, we see that pattern play out, as well ... and how the response is and is not responding to that inequity and impact.”

This point is particularly important as many of the foods we enjoy every day — including coffee, chocolate and bananas — are grown in the tropics by farmers who often make only $2/day. US consumers rely on cheap goods, products and services produced by developing nations. However, paying more for such goods and services now can help strengthen the supply chains we rely on both now and in the future. Farmers in particular are some of the most affected by climate change and yet contribute to it the least. A greater effort in more polluting countries to reduce emissions will improve not only the futures of farmers but will also shore up the food supply chains we all rely on. While these issues seem complex, the simple choices consumers make in their shopping habits are the seeds of change.

2. Companies putting people first

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Coronavirus is forcing businesses to put people before profits and uncovering cracks in the current system that are becoming canyons. In the United States, a lack of sick pay and medical leave have come to the forefront; coupled with the precarious predicament of hourly workers, who lack all the formal vestiges of employment. On the other end of the spectrum, more Directors and CEOs are juggling childcare while working from home; offering an opportunity to cultivate empathy (and, ideally, policy) for their lower-paid employees, many of whom struggle to afford formal childcare.

Outside of the US, companies are aware of the sudden vulnerabilities in their supply chains. For example, with Malaysia the capital of the latex world, the global supply of both medical gloves and condoms is running out. Such a concentration of output was previously a supply chain efficiency — now, it’s a risk.

For farming communities in developing countries, such vulnerabilities are not recent developments. Take cocoa, for example: Most cocoa is grown in West Africa, where the life expectancy averages 60 years, and the average age of a cocoa farmer is 50. Many young people do not want to go into farming because of the poor pay and grueling work, and instead seek opportunity in larger cities — leaving their farming communities. This is a ticking time bomb in ordinary times, let alone during a time when a pandemic threatens older people at a greater rate.

To truly put people first, companies should meaningfully acknowledge all people who make their business possible, starting at the supply chain for raw goods and ingredients.

3. A global recession could change consumption in the short and long term

According to the Fed, US unemployment rates could hit 32 percent as a result of this crisis. As a whole, US consumers have already buckled down when it comes to spending. Businesses large and small, which have been shuttered during the crisis, may not reopen.

Many people are no doubt confronting their overconsumption habits head on. For organizations that advocate for more conscious consumption, these developments could bring new opportunities. Fashion Revolution, an annual campaign that emerged in the wake of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, is finding a new audience for its #LovedClothesLast movement. According to the global nonprofit, this crisis can help us reflect on the overproduction and -consumption of fast fashion; and instead, motivate us to take better care of the clothes we do have by mending and making clothing last.

Fashion Revolution further calls on consumers to act: “If we do nothing, the fashion industry will simply return to business as usual when this is all over. Instead, let’s come together as a revolution and build a new system that values the wellbeing of people and planet over profit.”

In these uncertain times, many brands are rising to the challenges faced by both people and planet, as well as attracting more conscious consumers. Certifications such as Organic, Non-GMO and Fairtrade are likely to see an increase in applications as companies seek out ways to tap into existing sustainability systems that shoppers are demanding. Quality over quantity will be a theme that carries on well after the pandemic passes.

A more sustainable future

Witnessing the entire world banding together to face this humanitarian threat gives hope to a more sustainable future. A growing number of companies are already putting people before profit during the crisis. Although the danger to our health is currently very present and very real, experts expect this crisis will at some point pass, and we will be able to resume our normal lives with a renewed sense of appreciation. The question is, what will a return to “business as usual” look like? The hope is that surviving coronavirus brings out the best in humanity and changes individuals, companies and systems for the benefit of all.

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