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Where is Sustainability Headed Post COVID-19?

Perhaps the only positive thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been expanding focus on sustainability.

Locally, practices like buying groceries are demonstrating the benefits of sustainable approaches. Our take on the ‘Circular Economy’ and COVID-19 explored this idea, suggesting that as people grow conscious of their groceries' sources, they're inadvertently establishing local-first shopping habits. In some cases, people are even embracing CSA programs enabling direct investment in local farms. This all helps to drive sustainability. It restores competitive balance to local farms and suppliers, who work more sustainably than massive food suppliers (and with smaller, less harmful supply chains). It also results in less packaging waste, particularly given local markets' frequent emphasis of recycling.

There is also growing chatter about how COVID-19 might change cities beginning in 2021. This idea stems from some cities recognizing that implementing public health changes can also mean reducing carbon footprints. Numerous major cities have started initiatives to cut traffic, design bicycle routes and pedestrian plazas, and prepare for healthier post-COVID atmospheres. This means more people riding bicycles and reducing car mileage, which means less air and light pollution (and noise). Long-term, it may even mean more green space, if less car use results in reclaimed roads for parks and the like.

COVID-19 has also raised the idea that big oil may not be as viable after 2020. As is pointed out in a World Economic Forum report on COVID-19 and climate change, emissions have risen recently despite intensifying environmentalist protests. COVID-19, however, changed even this. The pandemic killed worldwide oil demand, while renewable energy endured. Thus, there is legitimate talk of oil losing meaningful ground to sustainable alternatives beginning in the New Year.

The key question now is whether these sustainable changes will endure beyond COVID-19.

Locally, it’s tough to tell. But there are early indications of measurable positive impacts that may lead some to stick with new, sustainable practices. Per University of Michigan MBA/MS candidate Heeseung Kim’s blog post on local impact, it is becoming clear that small businesses contributing to a circular economy are taking advantage of an opportunity to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Should businesses continue to report success in this regard, consumers may permanently embrace local, sustainable commerce.

It’s also noteworthy that COVID-related changes are occurring at a time when there is already significant momentum toward sustainability. This is true when we look at education and job opportunities, as well as when we consider investment.

Regarding the former, it's clear that there is a market for people specializing in sustainability and climate-related practices. The professionals behind Maryville University’s online sustainability degree course spoke to the fact that students in these areas face an expanding job market. The piece noted that more than 600 of the top U.S. companies have made commitments to sustainability and that roughly a quarter of the estimated $12 trillion invested in professional management is allocated for businesses employing ethical environmental practices. This all makes for significant projected growth in sustainability-related jobs.

We also see momentum when looking at larger investments. Reports on sustainable investing from CNBC show that sustainable funds saw “record inflows” in Q1 2020. This means sustainable practices enjoyed boosted investment capital at the pandemic's outset. As this investment pays off and sustainable initiatives prove their worth, this could become a new norm into 2021 and beyond.

In the end, it may be that some of these practices and ideas will revert to normal. But there is real momentum toward sustainable practices at local, city, and societal levels. Some of that will continue in the New Year. The hope is that we'll look back at the COVID-19 recovery beginning in 2021 as the beginning of an era of greater sustainability.

Article written for

By Jane Bly



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