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Progress: How the coronavirus pandemic could help lead us to a more sustainable future

WHAT has Covid-19 done to our environmental credentials? It feels like one minute we were wringing our hands over occasionally forgetting to bring our reusable cup to Costa, and the next shelling out for packets of disposable gloves, masks and antibacterial wipes without a thought for the level of plastic in the ocean.

For small businesses that were attempting to become greener and more sustainable before the pandemic hit, the current situation is a tricky one. Many are short on cash and having to invest in extra ‘Covid-proofing’ measures before they can reopen, and many of those measures will entail the use of more plastic and disposable PPE.

Trying to reopen ‘greener’ is difficult, but some experts believe it can, and should, be done.

‘Businesses that move earlier into supporting a genuinely green economy will reap the rewards,’ says Professor Peter Newell from the University of Sussex. ‘Covid has shown us that there is nothing more important than our health and a healthy planet. Protecting those things should be the goal for all of us.’

A green and pleasant lockdown

Professor Newell points out that the environmental effects of the pandemic have been ‘uneven’ but that many of us have significantly reduced our impact on the planet over the past few months. We haven’t been flying or commuting, skies have been bluer and wildlife is making a return to areas it long since abandoned. Coupled with this, there has been a renewed interest in supporting local businesses rather than global giants.

Many people would be delighted to see this continue as lockdown eases, say Professor Newell, so those businesses with sustainable credentials should flourish.

‘Opinion polls suggest people don’t want to go back to how things were before. Business as usual was a problem in terms of economic insecurity and unsustainable levels of pollution, so this is a chance to build a more resilient, low- carbon economy.’

Mark Sait, who runs comparison site and consultancy SaveMoney CutCarbon, agrees that there is an appetite for change.

‘Lockdown had an obvious but unexpected benefit that many people noticed. With less travel in cars and planes, fewer goods being produced and transported, we found ourselves with much cleaner air, a new freshness, mother nature fighting back and winning. It felt good.

‘Customers have had a taste of the cleaner world and will gravitate to spend with those that do their small bit to maintain this.’

That is perhaps the optimistic view. Others would acknowledge that sustainability can be a financial and logistical burden, and taht’s one thing that businesses may struggle to bear at present.

‘For many businesses, being more sustainable was an ambition that was making their processes, logistics and operations more complicated,’ says Al Overton, buying director at organic supermarket chain Planet Organic. ‘Now, with Covid, every aspect of business has become more complicated and many enterprises just won’t have the bandwidth to go the extra mile on sustainability issues.’

Eco-nomic benefits

SaveMoneyCutCarbon’s Mark Sait points out that some ethical swaps are good for the bottom line as well as the planet.

‘The untapped savings through even simple changes such as moving to LED lighting or changing to eco taps and showers are material,’ he says. ‘That’s money that goes straight to the bottom line and can be used to help organisations fight back and save jobs.’

Professor Newell agrees: ‘Reducing waste, cutting water and energy bills, allowing people to work at home where possible — this will all save businesses money.’

Walking the green tightrope

Reopening businesses face a balancing act. They want to both do good and enhance their reputations with sustainable credentials, but they also want to ensure their customers feel safe by providing hygienic products. And, crucially, they don’t want to go bankrupt — so expensive green reinventions are out.

Small steps that align with sustainable values but also signal that you care are a good start, says Nohelia Rambal, from ethical platform The Do-Gooders. ‘For example, swapping plastic carrier bags for recycled paper ones, or tote bags that customers can buy, as well as making receipts optional, would really show a commitment to positive environmental change.’

Laura Hepburn, from green waste specialist Greenology, says that baby steps are a good start.

‘Just small things like thinking twice about the recycling journey, what you buy, and carsharing can make a world of difference — especially if all businesses do the same. Make an effort to know the lifecycle of what you produce as a business and ask yourself the question: are you happy with it?’

Al Overton at Planet Organic says the key is to concentrate on whether the environmental step you are taking makes things easier or harder for you and your customers.

‘Is it expensive to embrace sustainability? Well, that depends. If it takes complexity and new developments to be greener then maybe. If it can be done through a simplification rather than complication, then maybe not.’

Help is at hand

You may find there’s more help out there to make your business greener than you think.

‘There is increasing access to many green loans and grants that organisations of all sizes can utilise,’ adds Mark Sait.

Try the moneydonut.co.uk or gov.uk/business-finance-support websites to find details about some of the grants that are available.

For those who get sustainability right now, there are likely to be rewards in the long term, with more customers indicating they will actively choose green options.

‘Recent global trends show that consumers, especially millennials and Gen Zs, are showing more concern about the environment, and choosing to make a positive impact through their purchase choices.

‘In the UK, the volume of web searches for terms such as “sustainable brands” has increased by around 64 per cent since lockdown started, showing a great increase in customers’ intentions to consume from brands that align with their values,’ says Nohelia Rambal, at The Do-Gooders. ‘As businesses reopen, implementing greener practices will help them stand out.’

OUR EXPERTS

Professor Peter Newell, professor of international relations at the University of Sussex and a specialist in the politics and political economy of environment and development

Mark Sait, founder and CEO of Britain’s largest online green marketplace, SaveMoneyCutCarbon.com

Laura Hepburn, owner of Greenology which helps others to use pyrolysis, which processes waste plastics into useful by-products such as oil

■ Nohelia Rambal, runs The Do-Gooders, a platform helping consumers easily find ethical alternatives

Al Overton, buying director of sustainable supermarket chain Planet Organic

‘Lockdown meant we had to use local suppliers. Now we’ll be sticking with them’

Plastic made fantastic: Thea with a flutepolishing cloth made from recycled plastic

LAUREN HUTCHINSON runs Manchester’s Rock Fairy, a sustainable products shop (above) with a rock music edge to it.

‘Sustainable products are often quite bland and don’t appeal to rockers, so that’s why I set it up,’ she says. Her shop sells beauty and cleaning products that are refillable, and everything is plastic-free.

While Lauren acknowledges that the pandemic has made many people more concerned about the hygiene of reusable products, and more likely to use plastic, she believes that for those who were already on this journey it is possible to be a more, not less, environmental business when opening back up. ‘Products such as veg boxes with no plastic have become popular, and lots of smaller sustainable brands that people might not previously have had access to can now be delivered,’ she says.

She adds that while plastic definitely has a role in protecting people from coronavirus, some people are going ‘to the nth degree’ with this. ‘There’s a huge amount of plastic litter from gloves and masks,’ she says. ‘I don’t allow gloves in my shop; I ask people to sanitise their hands, which is less likely to spread disease.’

rockfairy.co.uk

‘Smaller sustainable brands can flourish’

Rock and recycle: Lauren’s sustainable products shop targets eco-minded rockers

FOR music accessories business Beaumont Music, the pandemic has created a new focus. The company sells designer items such as cleaning cloths and instrument cases. Until this year, most of these were made in China, but production was halted in January when coronavirus hit.

‘This shone a real spotlight on our manufacturing being in the Far East and in particular on our carbon footprint,’ says founder Thea Paraskevaides, from Brighton.

‘The pandemic has broken our supply chain and fractured our distribution model.

‘Terrifying as this is, it has allowed us to leap forwards, to where we had aimed to be in five year’s time; focusing our efforts on working with repurposed and upcycled materials, boutique designers and one-man bands, creating bespoke and personalised items, and shipping direct from the manufacturer to the end user.”

Thea says that even though there has been a short-term focus away from environmental concerns, this will recede.

‘During the pandemic it seems that priorities have shifted. It’s all about single-use face masks, disposable tableware, cutlery and so on. However, there has also been an ethical shift, people want to know even more where their purchases have come from, who made them etc. We have to step up.’

beaumontmusic.co.uk