A New Normal: A natural experiment is reframing how we think about sustainability

May 1, 2020 · 5 min read

In this week’s edition of A New Normal, we’re going beyond the vivid headlines about cleaner air and clearer waters, to understand how this crisis is changing the way people think about sustainability.

The devastating impacts of this pandemic are irrefutable. It affects health, it affects prosperity, and it affects our sanity. Despite the tragic human costs, the collective impact of sheltering-in-place has also transformed our natural environment. We’ve seen clearer skies, a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel consumption, and even free-roaming wildlife in unexpected places. In China, just two months of reduced pollution is likely to have saved the lives of 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over the age of 70.

This crisis has inadvertently created a natural experiment allowing us to see the real time consequences of drastic behavioral change. The revitalization of nature during this time proves beyond doubt that we can bring about real change together. The idea that “we’re all connected” has never been — and felt — more real.

“We are all interconnected, and if we don’t get that lesson from this pandemic, maybe we never will.” — Jane Goodall

This week, we Zoomed into five homes across America, to understand what consumers, business leaders, and advocates are thinking, realizing, and practicing when it comes to sustainability amidst the pandemic. What can we learn from this natural experiment we’re all a part of?

Alison sees that people are starting to connect environmental health with their own well-being

Alison, a composting advocate and environmentalist living in New York City, believes that once people experience the environmental transformation for themselves, they’ll begin to make the connection between the earth’s health and their own. While she’s aware of the changes — “I can hear birds from my rooftop that I couldn’t hear before because the noise pollution is down” — she’s worried that not everyone is taking the change in, “I fear we’re not outside enough to notice— we are not seeing and experiencing the environmental benefits of this moment.”

Alison thinks this is crucial, not just to set a better path forward, but to protect the progress already made. Given the pressures that city and state governments are facing, there is a risk of reversal, “The city is shutting down really successful programs because of the cost to keep them running — like composting. My fear is that the recession and fear of infection will roll back some of the significant work that we’ve done for the environment.”

Gabriel wants to apply ‘flatten the curve’ thinking to the environmental challenge

“Everybody’s talking about flattening the curve of COVID. Well, there’s a parallel curve that’s at play right now — we’re on track to have a surge in emissions yet our carrying capacity as a planet is at its limit. We need to flatten the curve of our emissions too, if we’re going to avoid breaking our ecological system.”

The founder of a composting company in Cleveland, Gabriel is hopeful that the collective action we’re applying to the public health crisis can spill over to the climate crisis. We have a common vocabulary and an understanding that collective action can work. Will we use it? Will we agree on the problem?

Gina sees that the slower pace of COVID-life is creating room for new behaviors to emerge

It’s very hard to make a difference at a fast pace, and COVID has forced us to slow down and focus on the things that we might have overlooked before.” The founder of a sustainable swimwear brand, Nu Swim, Gina Esposito is using this time to experiment with new and better ways of fulfilling her everyday needs. “When I couldn’t find flour in my local grocery store, I spent time researching online and found this amazing farm in North Carolina. Even though it’s hard to know what is objectively ‘most sustainable,’ to me buying from small businesses is an expression of sustainability.”

Nu Swim

Vivian thinks that enduring this experiment has made us all a little more comfortable with change than we used to be

“I believe that people will become more comfortable with bigger changes because we’ve all just gone through this pandemic. Maybe big changes won’t seem as big anymore.”

An Energy Director living in New Hampshire, Vivian admits that, “Sustainability is almost a dirty word — people think they will lose all their things, that they’ll lose their freedom. For many, sustainability is scary because people really don’t like change.”

Andy sees challenges as moments of opportunity that should be met with creativity and innovation

Andy Ruben is the CEO and founder of Trove (and previously Walmart’s first Chief Sustainability Officer). Trove is a resale platform that has powered the e-commerce backend for brands like Patagonia (their Worn Wear offering) and Eileen Fisher (Renew), showing that resale can be another major pillar of any brand’s retail strategy. Trove has recently moved deeper into fashion and luxury with a partnership with Nordstrom. While it’s a revolutionary idea, brands, retailers, and consumers are seeing the benefits of resale for themselves, and behaviors are changing accordingly.

“I’m encouraged by the level of innovation and progress towards addressing big complex challenges through open source solutions, and there’s a lot of that happening right now,” Andy observes.

“I think that humans have an amazing ability to rise to the challenge and collaborate across silos and borders.”

Andy points out that this isn’t the first time we’ve faced a collective challenge. “What happened after Katrina was that there was an openness to try new things, to put existing things together in new ways. There was a spark of human ingenuity that wouldn’t have happened without the crisis.” The way we move forward is by evolving towards bigger and bolder ways of operating; it’s clear that small, half-measured shifts are not enough. This means we need to completely rethink our business models, supply chains, and overarching behaviors.

This natural experiment has revealed the possibilities of collective change. The once invisible forces that connected us, have become not only visible, but part of our everyday lives. We’re seeing proof that our behavior change can impact both the environment and our health at a large scale — but since it’s an experiment, it’s only temporary. The lasting change is for us to put in place.

A New Normal is a series by Redscout, a strategy and design consultancy. The series examines how COVID-19 is changing the world and envisions how these shifts are reshaping our work and that of our collaborators, our clients, our friends. Sign up to the newsletter here.


Redscout is a strategy and design consultancy.

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