COVID-19: A game-changer for sustainable consumption and production?

In response to the pandemic members of the Sustainable Consumption Institute and associated researchers have written a report to assess the possible acceleration of the transition to sustainable consumption and production.

As Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) Professor Frank Boons says, for academics interested in sustainable production and consumption the global lockdown caused by COVID-19 has led to immediate reflections on how the current coping strategies might feed in to the transition to sustainable societies. “A vital role for social scientists is to help to understand the challenges and facilitate this transition.”

In response, members of the SCI and associated researchers have collectively written a report Covid-19, changing social practices and the transition to sustainable consumption and production which details how normality has been disrupted in the provision of food, mobility and other sectors, and discusses whether behavioural changes will be retained after the crisis.

As he explains: “Our report answers two key questions. Firstly, what social practices have changed as a result of COVID-19, and what is the likelihood that such practices, and their alleged beneficial sustainability impacts, are retained after the immediate crisis subsides. And secondly, what conditions need to be met to make such retained practices part of an accelerated transition to more just and ecologically sustainable systems of provision.”

Disruption

The first part of the report details how everyday lives have been disrupted, and how a whole range of practices fundamental to current levels of consumption have been affected, such as increased demand for water and energy as people increase hygiene practices.

One of the biggest impacts has been on food provision. Before the pandemic restaurants, cafes and canteens supplied roughly one meal in six to the population of the UK, with about a third of household food expenditure devoted to eating away from home. However the report says that for many outlets the only way to maintain their business at the moment is through delivery which involves using large amounts of packaging waste and, arguably, leads to more food waste.

Agri-food systems, with their global supply chains and just-in-time business models, have also come under considerable stress, while the outbreak has also affected emergency food providers with the lockdown in the UK leading to a decline in volunteers and a shortage in food donations. The report says some food banks in the UK are being forced to shut down or reduce and reorganise the service they offer.

One of the biggest impacts of COVID-19 has been on public transport systems. As the report details: “Issues of how we move about densely populated urban areas, and do that safely in the future, have raised huge questions around the future of urban mobility systems. The lockdown has produced stark environmental consequences in terms of reduced emissions and has begun to renew public debate about the potential for more effectively addressing the public health effects of air pollution through building low carbon mobility networks that are also more resilient to future crises.”

Changing habits?

The report takes a qualified position on whether changed habits will be retained in the future. For instance in terms of food provision, it concludes that while the present disruption has been substantial, the practice of eating out for recreation and convenience will probably not change fundamentally and that a ‘bounce back’ of practices – along with its environmental impacts – can be expected.

However it says the current situation may have lasting effects on shopping practices due to the unprecedented shift to e-commerce and delivery services. A potential long-term relocation of practices to the home – from work to leisure activities – would also have profound implications for shopping and beyond.

In terms of mobility, the report says much will depend on how many people continue to work at home. “The viability of this will be affected by employers considering potential savings in the real estate cost associated with office space. Decisions to abandon office space will be a powerful enabler of retaining remote working practices,” it says.

However this will not affect all workers, and for any commuting that has to take place a complicating factor may be resistance to returning to public transport – such that in the longer term the crisis may lead to increased emissions as individual cars substitute the use of public transport.

Policy implications

Adds Professor Boons: “To retain practices, two points are of key importance. First, changed practices sometimes have a positive sustainability impact, but sometimes environmental and social impacts increase. So a first task is to carefully assess what practices we actually would want to retain. Secondly, for practices to be retained supporting conditions need to be in place: physical infrastructure and financial means, favourable norms and regulations, as well as overall positive appreciation and awareness. To a considerable extent, these conditions need to be actively shaped through policy.

“Thus, interventions are needed in order to bring about substantive and long-lasting change towards a more just and sustainable society. The COVID-19 pandemic demands interventions that could pave or obstruct the path toward sustainability.”

He admits that there are a vast number of questions that are impossible to answer a few short months into such a global crisis that is changing every day.

“There remains much that we don’t and can’t yet know. However, the pandemic presents an exceptional opportunity for gathering new evidence and carrying out research that will help shape economic, political and environmental policy for generations, and researchers at SCI are ready to take on that task.”

You can view the full report here.