As US states open up, and the Republican-led Senate grows wary of passing more economic stimulus bills, those of us who hoped that things would not go back to “normal,” have started wondering… what comes next?
We’ve learned a lot: those meetings really could have been emails, and business travel really could have been replaced with video-conferences. Weekend getaways involving planes maybe weren’t as necessary as you thought they were… Teachers do much more than teach, being a stay at home mom is hard work, and delivery and grocery workers — while essential to keeping communities running — aren’t treated as such.
We learned that while shelter-in-place measures ended the 18 year streak of school shootings in the US, it did not stop the killings of Black Americans at the hands of the police. We learned that our society is OK with people protesting because they want a haircut, but threatened by people protesting inequality.
We learned that all that driving and flying we do has a DIRECT impact on the health of our planet: we saw the clear skies and breathed the fresh air for ourselves. Pollution dropped all over the world, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives due to improved air quality.
While it’s too soon to tell if the behavioral changes brought on by mass shelter-in-place orders will have any longterm effect, in the short term the consequences have been undeniable. Many of us were forced to stop and pay attention for the first time in a long time. This refreshed perspective provides an opportunity to reset our thinking in many ways.
So how do we built back better? Inspired by an ongoing conversation I have been having with a friend in Europe, I decided to take a look at some of the key components of our lives to explore how we can build back more sustainably.
Work. While Twitter may have been the first company to commit to fully remote work, the list of companies who are prioritizing work from home flexibility is growing fast.
Pre-COVID-19, the average daily roundtrip commute of a New Yorker was 1 hour and 22 minutes, the second highest in the country, meanwhile tech employees in Silicon Valley are infamous for working diligently on their two-hour — company-sponsored and wifi-enabled — bus shuttles in and out of San Francisco. Saving hours in a commute, while decreasing the related pollution certainly could have a dramatic effect on the quality of American lives. According to the EPA, 28% of US emissions comes from transportation, with the majority of this due to the burning of fossil fuels for cars, trucks, ships, and planes.
Already workers are moving out of big cities to smaller towns and rural areas that offer a lower cost of living. But what does it mean to work remotely? The definition changes dramatically if you have children. In the US there is no federal or state-mandated program to subsidize or provide childcare to families or employees. Some employers do provide benefits to working parents, but the majority of parents are responsible for finding and paying for childcare, which can be expensive. Furthermore, the US is one of only four countries in the world without a national statutory paid maternity, paternity, or parental leave. If companies are able to save on less office space, they need to start thinking about improving benefits for working parents.
But who can really work from home? A recent study shows that only 37% of American jobs are able to go fully remote. What happens to the millions of American jobs that require person-to-person contact? And how many of those jobs are now lost forever to automation? A company that was questioning the capital expenditure of investing in automation, now has had the business case made for them. Instead of plants hiring back workers, they will transition more of their assembly lines to machines. Despite Amazon’s recent commercials about how much they love their delivery workers, they are strategizing internally on how to remove humans from the delivery process as fast as possible. So what happens to all those people?
And for that matter, what happens to the forty million people who have lost their jobs? Where and how do they go back to work? In what industry? What happens to the 40% of households with incomes under $40,000 that lost their jobs? Why are some people making more on unemployment than they did on working wages? Why are companies not paying their workers living wages? Why are employees of Amazon — a company with a market cap of $1.3 trillion at writing — eligible for food stamps?
Suffice to say, work in this country is broken. A start would be to replace most social welfare programs with universal basic income, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Last August, the large corporations that make up the Business Roundtable made a commitment to focus stakeholders over shareholders. That transition needs to be accelerated. We need certified B-Corps and benefit corporations to become more prevalent: companies that either pledge or are legally bound to uphold metrics not only for profit, but also for people and the planet. Corporations need to be held accountable for how they treat their employees and the planet. You can enforce that as a consumer: find a list of B-Corps to patronize here.
When you vote this year, look at what candidates propose related to corporate regulations and family support policies. If they don’t have a solution, challenge them on it. Solving these problems is critical to our future and wellbeing as a society.
Food. Globalization has been nothing short of an incredible feat. That we can go to our local grocery store and buy food that’s been grown thousands of miles away is an incredible achievement of technology and supply chain advancement. But the pandemic has reminded us that these global supply chains are fragile and susceptible to disruption. And the global emissions footprint from food is serious.
The end of meat is here. If you have not been outraged about what is happening in meat processing plants in the United States — yes, Upton Sinclair wrote about this problem in 1906 — you are not paying attention. Factory farming relies on meat processing standards that would be illegal in most other counties, and, combined with subsidies, has lowered the price of meat in America so drastically that Americans eat more meat than most other developed counties; for example, 50% more than Canadians.
A quarter of global emissions come from food production, and half of food emissions come from animal products. Vaclav Smil explains in his book Should We Eat Meat? that inefficiencies and waste need to be dramatically improved to minimize the industry’s environmental impacts. Smil writes that while the demand for meat in the US has started to decrease, predicting that industrializing countries may reach the top of their consumption curves in the next decade, the issue is that globally, it is considered a sign of affluence to eat meat.
In the US Americans don’t pay the real cost of meat, the industry subsides need to be removed in order to reduce some of the outsized demand. As a consumer, you can also do your part to lower demand as well. Try Meatless Mondays. Try eating locally and seasonally. Drink locally too. A great perspective on this movement can be found in the book If The Buddha Came to Dinner.
Travel. Airlines are a facing a tough reality. The industry is linked to a volatile commodity, runs perpetually on thin margins, and its GHG emissions have twice the amount impact on the atmosphere because of the altitude at which planes fly. And while air travel accounts for less of global emissions than ground transportation, it is a bulky industry with little competition that often requires government intervention to keep it afloat.
And it is a glaring reality that, despite air travel bringing the world closer together, it is directly responsible for the spread of COVID-19 across the planet. The virus was likely in Europe in late December thanks to the frequently traveled trade routes that operate between China and Italy. Epidemiologists have further confirmed that the outbreak in New York came from Europe, not China. In Cuomo’s April 23rd press conference, he noted that over two million people arrived on 13,000 flights from Europe between January and March 2020, carrying COVID-19 with them.
So what will we do for vacations? Seeking fully sustainable vacation experiences should become the new normal. Ideally we find ways to relax closer to home. And with less of a need to commute for work — or live in cities — perhaps our homes become more comfortable, perhaps we get to live full time in calmer and cleaner places, and we don’t feel the need to jet off to exotic locations as soon as we get time off.
We are all guilty in one way or another of jetting all across the globe without thinking about the consequences. The issue is not to stop that all together, but to be more conscious of our behavior. If you must go to Mykonos, how can you offset it? Carbon-neutral travel is possible, and should become the bedrock of the tourism industry. Check out carbonfund.org.
As for cruise ships— we will see if/when Carnival opens up their lines again, but this is an area of the travel sector that is in desperate need of a sustainability overhaul. From exacerbating air quality issues, dumping sewage and pollutants into waters, and emitting more than the airline industry, cruise line companies need to commit to more sustainable business practices. A cruise line passenger’s carbon footprint triples when they set foot on board. Cruise ships represent a bygone era of excess, as well as complete disregard for the environmental consequences of our actions, a mindset that should be wholly unacceptable in the post-COVID-19 era.
Fashion. As the fifth most polluting industry in the world, fashion is due for a makeover. Giorgio Armani led the way with a progressive statement explaining that fashion’s downfall has been its embrace of fast fashion — the exact opposite of what luxury used to stand for. Our grandparents’ generation turned to luxury fashion houses because they knew the clothes would last them a lifetime; now items barely last a season.
COVID-19 allows for the opportunity to revisit fashion supply chains and business operations all over the world. The choice of textiles is a serious one. Again, who profits? In the case of fast fashion, it’s certainly not the workers: predominately women and underage children in low-income countries, these workers are subjected to dangerous conditions, with inadequate compensation. This type of worker exploitation is even happening in America. As consumers, we have a duty to boycott these companies and chose sustainable fashion options. There is an app called Good on You that helps you buy clothing with these concerns in mind. And if you haven’t seen it, watch the documentary The True Cost.
There is also a theory that the fashion week circuit propagated the spread of COVID-19 in the US — again is all that travel necessary? In his statement, Armani writes that “special events should no longer happen as a habit.” We would be wise to take this observation to heart. Similar to cruise lines, the reckless galavanting all over the world that the industry celebrates (also looking at you, global art fair circuit) perpetuates a mentality of excess — and lack of responsibility for the planet — that should not be tolerated in a post-COVID-19 world.
Infrastructure. According to the World Bank, 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from infrastructure construction and operations. In the United States, roads, bridges, and tunnels are nothing short of a disaster in disrepair. Municipal and state governments need to take advantage of reduced travel and daily commuting to rebuild infrastructure sustainably. At the federal level, a long-discussed Infrastructure Bill should take priority in Congress and be founded on sustainability. In asset management, infrastructure is considered a long-term investment: expected to provide income and/or returns over thirty years. Given that the planet now only has thirty years to meet the emissions reduction goals set by the Paris Agreement in 2015, it is impossible to think about new infrastructure investment without sustainability.
It will require significant capital expenditure, but the US has not invested in its infrastructure in over 50 years. The two train tunnels that link the Northeast Corridor under the Hudson River are over 100 years old. There is truly no excuse not to be retrofitting and building in a sustainable way, using nature-built solutions as often as possible. Experts predict that pandemics will occur with increased frequency, as human population growth and development encroach further on ecological systems, resulting in the increased presence of zoological diseases. Combined with the expectation that climate change will force the mass migration of human populations, it becomes imperative that new infrastructure projects be fully sustainable. What we build next must protect human lives, as well as the health of our planet.
We must not forget that we created the world we live in, with all its imperfections, and we can rebuild it however we like. Sustainability does not mean sacrificing your comfort for others or for the planet, it means creating a better way of life that balances equality and preserves the precious ecosystems sustaining us.
We may just be individuals, but as individuals we make hundreds of decisions every day; from what kind of food we eat, to what kind of car we drive. Those decisions have a rippling social impact. Having a friend who puts solar panels on their house makes a person more likely to add them to theirs. Be that friend.