Lockdown: An Opportunity to Revisit Good-Old Sustainability

It was the eighth day of the lockdown. The daily routine had changed by then – honks and the general  hubbub had been replaced by the chirping of birds; litter had disappeared from roads and mornings felt more pleasant than ever.

When I stepped out to refill my groceries, I was amazed to see the once crowded and untidy vegetable market sparse and clean. We all saw numerous videos and pictures of a cleaner Venice, pristine rivers, brighter skies and newly-spotted birds on social media. Newspapers corroborated the drop in pollution levels across various cities around the world.

The pictures provided some sort of respite amidst the distressing news cycle on coronavirus and speculations on what lies ahead. While the pictures are serene, the cause clearly isn’t. We like the pictures, but not the reason why they look like so.

However, many experts believe that these benefits are temporary and would vanish as soon as the lockdown is lifted.

And once the restart button is hit, industries will go back to emitting fumes off their chimneys, plants will start disposing waste water into rivers, vehicles will start burning fossil fuels – and we will litter our streets again.

Can we fix this? Can we think of it as a nature-bestowed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

We need to tinkle our brains a little more to accommodate this cause as we go about our day-to-day chores.

A businessman should think about what he can do to reduce the firm’s carbon footprint. Can processes be altered? Can firms give resources back to the planet in some other form? Can firms strike a balance between profitability and sustainability? Apparently, it’s not impossible.

‘Best out of waste’ model

There are some successful businesses that have made such efforts and have been flourishing for several years.

The Body Shop, a UK-based cosmetic brand, has incorporated environmental conservation and use of renewable resources in its memorandum and articles of association which provides purpose to company, by law. In monthly gatherings, they discuss business, not only from sales or profit point of view, but also from people and planet point of view.

The Orchid Ecotel, a five-star hotel in Mumbai, is Asia’s first hotel to win the Ecotel Certification that provides eco-friendly facilities, operates on solar energy and uses recyclable products in the hotel.

Park 20|20, a business park in Netherlands, is constructed from recyclable material and is designed on ‘cradle to cradle principle’, which means that waste from one process is used as a source material for other.

This approach is proposed by economist Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. She states that industries around the globe follow a linear chain pattern. The process starts with extraction of earth’s resources, in the form of raw materials, and ends up in landfills – called as ‘cradle to grave’ model. I would like to elucidate by giving an example from the book. Leftover coffee grounds usually end up in dustbins. They are rich in cellulose, lignin, nitrogen and sugars, which can be used to grow mushrooms and then can be used as feed for cattle, chicken and pigs. In this way it can return to soil as manure (cradle to cradle).

Also read: What Growing up in an Indian Middle-Class Household Taught Me About Sustainability

Now imagine, your coffee machine company collects the waste every week as it delivers you fresh beans at your office. It can then start a business of mushrooms or can sell the grounds to the mushroom grower, who might get benefitted with cheaper nutrients.

It is like a ‘best out of waste’ project for businesses.

These ideas are not new, but to see a significant impact we need to scale these efforts to all possible products. Although, before we start building higher hopes, we must admit that it needs lot of efforts and time to revamp business processes. More than will and determination, it could be argued that this entails huge investments in building such designs and infrastructure. But these exceptional times demand exceptional answers and embracing such thinking in company’s DNA is a step forward in this direction.

How can the society contribute?

Similar to businesses, we as a society should also make efforts to regenerate waste. There are several easy ways to recycle waste in our homes: creating manure out of bio-degradable waste and using it for our plants, reusing old clothes, and so forth.

In rural areas, many such ways are followed on a daily basis. However, most of the urban infrastructure across the world is not designed appropriately to suffice these needs. For example, most of the kitchen waste contains nutrients which are lost once it is mixed in the regular sewage pipes.

We can think of creating infrastructure in such a way that kitchen waste is directed towards nearby trees or is made reusable. We might have to rethink and redesign the urban infrastructure altogether to incorporate regeneration paradigm.

What can the government do?

The role of government is to make such transitions smoother for businesses and people. Governments can invest in sanitation and waste water treatment plants, build environmental dashboards for each city and monitor it continuously, speed up cleanliness drives and strategise regenerative aspect in industrial and urban policies.

However, instead of giving financial incentives, which might be useful in the short term, it is always better to ease the way of doing business and nudge businesses and society to adopt newer ways.

This may sound idealistic and a bit too far-fetched given the current scenario where businesses are dying and governments are running out of cash to fix their healthcare systems.

Also read: Eco-Anxiety: Are Brands Listening?

But think about it this way – seldom, there are opportunities where nature corrects itself and all we need to do is try hard to sustain the situation, nonetheless improve it. How about we plan the larger challenges in collaboration with different bodies while we start taking baby steps right away?

The beach clean-up drives can reach the end goal faster if we don’t litter the place any further. The pollution can be controlled, if not reduced, if companies take more initiatives of people working from home, some days a week. The cradle-to-cradle model can be expanded if coffee shops venture into mushroom business. Something like an Earth Hour can be done more often, say, on a monthly basis now that we realise how things can change if humans improve their ways of living.

All it takes is a second thought before we throw waste, mindlessly take an entire car to ourselves when we could carpool, make long walks more romantic than long drives. Each one of us viz. businesses, society and government, has a role to play, either by using advanced technologies, a tad more discipline or by formulating policies. The idea is not to stop living and do the things we love, but do it within the realms of nature.

Swapnil Karkare is a Chartered Accountant, an alumnus of Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics and a blogger. Currently, he works as an Associate Analyst – Economics and Strategy (Research) in capital markets sector. You can find him on Twitter @Swap_Kar and on Instagram @swap_kar.

Featured image credit: Alexander Klarmann/Unsplash