The world is changed forever due to Covid-19, we simply can’t avoid it. But, whether that long-term change is good or bad is down to the actions of the many and the policies of the few. In the new world, we can hope to see people shopping locally instead of importing, walking or cycling instead of driving, and working from home instead of commuting. This whole experience has been educational, and in an ideal world, we will be able to practice responsible consumption and production much better, now that we’ve had a good old time to think about our old ways.
As you may have read on this site before, Sustainable and Development are two words that exist in contradiction with each other. Development requires the use of an ever-increasing amount of resources and energy, whereas ‘sustainable’ is more about maintaining what we have. Sustainable Development, therefore, is a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense and yet can be easily understood by all, due to its oxymoronic nature.
In this article, we are going to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 on SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. We’ll also make some assertions about what the future holds for this ambition.
What were the implications of Covid-19 on consumption and production?
SDG 12 is one of the more wide-ranging goals because it encapsulates so much. Humans, by nature, are either consuming or producing at almost all hours of the day! So this goal involves things like food waste, using our natural resources properly, managing chemicals, recycling and managing waste, sustainable tourism, and fossil fuels. These are some of the biggest and most pressing issues of the modern era, and the answers to solving them lay in the collaborative efforts of producers and consumers. The consumers highlight and indicate what a better product looks like and its relationship with the world (recyclable, biodegradable, reusable), and it’s the producers’ job to listen, innovate, and meet the needs or demands of the market.
In the developing world, consumption and production took huge hits, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. The ECLAC, which represents this region, had predicted growth before the pandemic hit, and suddenly saw that a big economic downturn was coming. Goods and services were no longer in demand and so people got laid off from their jobs. With social distancing and self-isolation too, people lost their confidence in the market and their ability to find employment. The impact was significant.
In Latin America and the Caribbean there is a great outdoor culture, with markets, gatherings, and busy events regularly taking place. With this way of life in short supply, every part of the supply chain quickly felt the damage. However, the change encouraged people to think resourcefully, shop locally, and try to protect the most cherished businesses and services.
Consumers were forced to think sustainably about their consumption, but it didn’t provide a full understanding, it was more of an awareness. Suddenly resource consumption expanded from being an environmental issue to a social issue. Businesses and communities were pushed into innovation and re-evaluation, and if they didn’t, they were inviting added pressures. Some businesses started selling different products, meeting the needs of those during a pandemic or taking their work online. Many businesses simply closed.
Supply Chain Sustainability and SDG 12
Supply chains took a real beating in 2020, and in 2021 they’ve started to reconfigure themselves in a better way, but it’s not been easy. With the whole structure flung into panic mode, traditional consumer behaviour went out of the window. People were hoarding, panic buying, panic selling, stocking up for a nuclear winter and so on and so forth. None of these actions were sustainable and supply chains weren’t really built for panicked behaviour, which made them appear far less resilient.
Many businesses were forced to close temporarily while they figured out how they were going to source materials or provide their products or service. Others adapted overnight, whereas some were already set up sustainably and could support their communities immediately. Logistics is different now, transportation is different, and even inventory is managed in new ways to meet responsible consumption and production needs, and to be more sustainable.
Covid has forced supply chains to be more robust and resourceful, which is a good thing moving forward. This allows businesses to be more future-proof and sustainable, implementing tools, techniques, policies, and more that assess how sustainable and responsible their supply chain is, looking upstream and downstream. Working with local communities during the pandemic has also pushed many businesses into embracing new perspectives, developing local marketing, building trust, and making a deeper connection overall.
Here’s another way to see things. Covid-19 affected everyone on a personal level and a professional level, which means it wasn’t only the responsibility of the businesses to adjust, it was the responsibility of the consumers to adjust and respond in a good way too. The disruption was unprecedented and consumer habits are yet to return to normal. Will consumers be more responsible and resourceful when the pandemic is over or will over-consumption make an unwelcome return? Are the golden years of business and economic development behind us? Will people continuing to work from home have huge knock-on effects on the business world? There are many questions left unanswered.
ISO14001, the starting point for businesses
As an Environmental Consultant, I come from a position where businesses can really lead the movement on climate action. Governments are held back by policies, laws, slow-moving change, political agenda and more. Individuals are held back by financial limitations, time, and the general daunting task of changing the world independently. Businesses, however, are well placed, having the autonomy, power, numbers, and finances, to drive change. Do they have the willingness? That depends. The very least they can do is to embrace ISO14001 and begin implementing an Environmental Management System.
An EMS looks primarily at three things:
- Resource efficiency
- Lifecycle Considerations
- Environmental Improvement
The moment you start your ISO14001 journey, you’re on the path to achieving Goal 12. Let’s go!
The many different issues being faced in pursuit of SDG 12
- Marine plastic pollution
- Food waste generation
- Biodiversity and ecosystem damage
- Energy consumption
- Farming shortages
Let’s be honest, this list could go on forever. We need to save the bees because the bees are part of an ecosystem and supply chain that makes so many things possible. We need to stop using plastic straws because they end up in the ocean and contaminate the fish we eat and causes other health problems. There are feedback loops throughout the relationship between humanity, nature, and consumption.
In the new world, we need to fix those loops, work strategically, use fewer resources, and make better use of the resources we do use. SDG 12 should, in theory, be one of the easier goals to solve, but many people suggest that the reduced quality of life and experience we’ve had since March 2020 is going to create a springboard effect of overconsumption once the pandemic is truly over. We’ll have to wait and see.