This year’s Earth Day has taken on new significance, as the global community continues to grapple to control the Covid-19 pandemic, an unprecedented crisis in our modern times with far-reaching and inter-connected global challenges and consequences. This crisis has demonstrated how much we depend on each other, as one humanity living on one planet, for our health systems, as well as for our food systems and supply chains. Our industry has, as a result, been put under enormous pressure and has risen to the challenge admirably, as our members work around the clock to ensure solutions and support local communities.
However, when the pressure is on and leaders switch their focus to business contingency plans, we are aware that sustainability is at risk of falling down the corporate priority list. A company’s actions during times of crisis are written into its history and make a lasting impression on consumers. We also know that sustainability will in fact become more and more pressing as we navigate through this crisis and emerge on the other side. The health of people is intrinsically linked to the health of the planet.
As global media coverage largely centres around the immediate and concrete threat that is Covid-19, the spotlight has for the moment been taken off sustainability. Even though consumers’ minds may be elsewhere, let’s be sure that we are still doing the right thing – for our workforce, our supply chains, our customer base and our planet. As an industry, we must continue to give sufficient attention and investment to issues such as climate change and workers’ rights in the months ahead. With many sustainability issues so completely intertwined with the pandemic, this is the moment for purpose-driven companies to step up and show leadership in sustainability.
Evidence is stacking up that habitat loss caused by deforestation for the expansion of agricultural land is directly linked to an increase in zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, caused by pathogens crossing from animals to humans. As more and more forests continue to be cleared around the world, scientists fear that the next deadly pandemic could emerge from what lives within them as animals venture into regions inhabited by humans. If we do not act to turn the tide on deforestation quickly, global pandemics will continue to bring our society to a standstill, with profound economic and health impacts.
Just before the Covid-19 outbreak, sustainable packaging was one of the key challenges on the agenda of many consumer goods companies. However, as consumers start to understandably prioritise health and sanitation, we must be prepared that their views on packaging will become more hygiene-focused than sustainability-focused, at least in the short term. As a result, we have already started to see that disposable packaging is once again on the rise, as retailers and manufacturers seek to reassure and protect their customer base. Different kinds of disposable packaging have different microbial limits. But unless a product is explicitly marked “sterile”, none of those limits are zero. The novel coronavirus can survive on most surfaces, including plastic. Disposable cups, bottles and bags are no safer than properly washed reusables. As an industry, we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t inadvertently undo the progress that we have made on this issue and continue to drive progress.
Another unforeseen consequence of the pandemic has been the staggering amount of food that has gone to waste, starting with food losses at farm level all the way to retailers and households. The collective response to the coronavirus pandemic, from panic buying at grocery stores to restaurant closures, is bound to inflate the percentage of food going to waste. Companies that support the hospitality industry and large scale clients like schools and businesses are forced to rework their logistics. These disruptions can impact farmers of perishable produce grown with specific outlets in mind, as well—assuming these farms can find enough laborers to even harvest their crops.
Restrictions on population movement and cross border travel have wrought havoc on farming and supply chains as millions of labourers cannot get to the fields for harvesting or planting. In Europe, we have seen governments appeal to citizens to step in as seasonal workers to replace the gap that will be left by migrant workers – or else, they will be faced with waste on an enormous scale. “If the call is not heard, the production will remain in the fields, and the entire sector will be damaged,” said Christiane Lambert, head of France’s largest farm union, FNSEA. We as an industry have a responsibility to step up and help in this process.
Although it would be easy to put climate action on the backburner for the moment, we know that the climate issue is so important to our future well-being that it is likely to come back stronger and will take a role at the forefront of the global geopolitical agenda alongside healthcare. It is simply an issue that is too urgent to ignore.
We believe that prosperity for people and the planet is possible only if we make bold decisions today so that future generations can survive and thrive in a better world. Sustainability is absolutely at the heart of our global recovery from this pandemic, which is so deeply entwined with the topics that we work across.
This year the CGF has shifted its governance model to a new and so far unique approach to drive positive change, which we are calling our Coalitions of Action. These Coalitions help our members to drive more impactful collaborations that benefit both people and planet. We are already working hard behind the scenes within our Deforestation, Plastics and Food Waste Coalitions to accelerate change.
The positive actions that we take as companies can serve as a much-needed source of collective hope and optimism for recovery in these uncertain times.
This post was written and contributed by:
Director, Environmental Sustainability
The Consumer Goods Forum