The moment of truth in our commitment to sustainability

May 25, 2021

by Alisson Ávila* | Originally posted in Observador

We are all thinking, feeling, and talking about the pandemic and its impacts from different angles. Whether in the context of work relationships, family dynamics, (un)trust in institutions, or hope for the future, several studies point to an impact of a similar level to that of World War II, with the difference that this isn’t a “war” that ends at a specific time and, the next day, we move on to reconstruction works. 

For example, the recently published 2021 Financing for Sustainable Development Report of the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development alerts us for a “lost decade” in terms of development, where the differences between rich and poor will further widen with strong socioeconomic consequences. On the other hand, Europe’s main stock exchanges are following their upward path, confident of a recovery following the gigantic investment of Horizon Europe – and above all, in the belief of economists that, after the massive vaccination, we’ll return to restaurants, shops and airports to consume and travel as if there was no tomorrow – and as if, in general, adult and economically active Europeans were more spenders than “savers.” 

We’ll likely want to spend even more than what we have, to celebrate the return to the streets and thereby cause a mega-injection of capital into the economy. But should we do this in the post-pandemic time? Will it make sense to resume all our consumption habits, despite the unquestionable pleasure they provide, if we’re aware that the control of pollution, waste, and extraction of raw materials is also our responsibility? It is only through non-consumption attitudes that different industries will be forced to innovate and reinvent themselves and that several green and digital transition goals will be achieved in an effective and structuring way. 

A year ago, when confinement started around the world, preliminary data collected by the European Space Agency (ESA) suggested that the reduction of mobility and fossil fuel consumption would have an almost immediate impact on air pollution in larger cities. However, just a few more months of Covid-19 were enough for new evidence to raise doubts about the permanence of this scenario – thus, indicating the obvious: decreasing systematic pollution levels involves much more than a hypothetically locked-at-home society. In 2020, three-quarters of the world’s countries registered the presence of microparticle levels in the air above the maximum recommendations, despite the significant drop in polluting activities, according to a report by Swiss company IQAir and Greenpeace. And in the United States, figures from the University of Delaware show that the average level of pollutants in the North American atmosphere has recovered in late 2020 and is increasing again – and will continue to grow when our mobility and the transport sector as a whole return to normal. 

When it comes to our daily reality, the masks we find on the street, watercourses and beaches, or their disposal in inappropriate boxes are just “small examples” that still call our attention, as they are new to the eye. Meanwhile, all the other residues from our consumption track record are definitely becoming a sort of “landscape”, or are simply invisible. When we see the unquestionable growth of robust transportation packaging usage due to the e-commerce explosion during the pandemic, or the microplastics rain detected in the skies of California, it seems that the only sense still capable of reacting to our “old normal” is the sense of smell. Attributing nauseating odours to the rich material still not managed to recycle could be a good idea, by nudging our reaction towards a circular economy. 

Anyway, our responsibility is key: it is the sum of our improved personal behaviours, alongside less, non-consumption decisions that will create a scale for change within society. By doing so, we might create the best available pressure to encourage more economic agents to move beyond environmental awareness and discourse to enter the action phase: the real innovation moment. Fortunately, tangible sustainability practices beyond any greenwashing empty discourse are growing on a dizzying scale in Portugal. Companies, startups, research centres, and public authorities are working together to innovate in a collaborative way – the only approach capable of generating any systemic impact. Examples are innovation programs such as NextLap, led by the Portuguese company Valorpneu alongside the largest tire recycler in the world, the Danish company Genan, which is developing pilots alongside startups and players in the industry to give new life to tires: according to data from the WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development) from December 2019, more than 30 million tonnes of end-of-life tires are discarded worldwide each year, generating a polluting and toxic liability for which Europe is responsible for around 10% of this total. In its turn, the pilot projects developed under the Bluetech program, led by the Portuguese Ministry of the Sea with the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD), envision tens of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide reducing in the country’s main ports, as pointed out in its impact report. 

And the examples keep coming. The Smart Open Lisboa platform, from Lisbon’s City Council, is currently selecting startups from around the world to develop joint projects alongside large companies from the private sector related to their vertical for the Green Economy. And Sociedade Ponto Verde, the Portuguese organization that collects, recovers, and recycles non-reusable packaging waste from the past 25 years, recently launched the Re_Source program, based on a global call for solutions to increase the circularity of glass, aluminium, and plastic packaging. The program has also the goal of raising awareness for a change in what should be the simplest of our attitudes: correct separation and disposal of waste. 

Although we are all looking forward to celebrating life and socializing on the streets and in other geographies (very rightfully so, by the way) it’s the near future that will mark the moment of truth in our commitment to sustainability. Are we really going to confront our past behaviours with the next choices we must undertake henceforth? Such shift is the definitive push for a redesign of production processes, value chains, and distribution in the economic system. Call it social pressure, consumer trends, or consumer insight: as long as it’s felt in the PNL results from those who haven’t changed yet, we’ll increase the chance of getting an adequate response for the sake of our descendants. 

Not to mention, obviously, our planet itself and its natural order: this is all about less ego and more eco. So wave goodbye to anthropocentrism and say hello to biocentrism – the belief, and the pieces of scientific evidence, that all forms of life are important and inter-connected within a network where we are not the only and very special ones. 

It will demand hard work indeed, but it will also give us a future – no greenwashing narrative involved. And it might sound like, but no naivety, too: it was good to keep up with the Leaders Summit for Climate valuable and necessary commitments these days. But it was even greater to check the necessary provocation from her again, Greta Thunberg right before the event’s opening with an open call to action to cut the bullshit. Shouldn’t we focus on smart Degrowth?

Lisbon, May 2021

(article originally published in Portuguese at Observador online newspaper – April 2021)

* Alisson Avila, Co-Founder, Communication & Knowledge Principal, Beta-i