The Planet is Dying: Sustainability during a pandemic

By Zazie Atkinson

2019 was to be named the Year of Sustainability. After decades of lack of interest and investment in the zero-waste movement (and climate change in general), it finally seemed that people’s mindsets, and in turn businesses, were turning towards a brighter, greener future. 

And then the pandemic hit. 

COVID-19 is an unprecedented event that is still having devastating effects on all sectors of life. Back in March, both businesses and the public went into panic mode – pictures of empty, deserted shelves lining the aisles of Tesco’s were splattered across news outlets, and thousands of people were losing their jobs. With that, many businesses turned their strategies into survival mode, pushing sustainability to the backbench. So, why is this such a problem and how can we try our best to be zero-waste during a pandemic?

COVID-19 hit sustainability hard 

Both sustainability and zero waste movements aim to move to a circular economy and avoid the depletion of natural resources – in simple terms, it is breaking the lavish and wasteful consumer lifestyles that most of us live. The movement has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. More and more people have been turning to vegan diets, slow fashion, and package-free zero-waste stores as a way to reduce their carbon footprint. 

King’s College London, amongst other UK universities, opened up a zero-waste store at the beginning of last year. The ‘Nought Zero Waste Store’ was an initiative that many of us students were thrilled to get behind: affordable prices for package-free goods – a refreshing change from the other ‘boutique’ style zero-waste stores in London. But, like many businesses, the pandemic took its toll, and Nought had to close its doors after having been open for less than a year. 

More and more shoppers have been turning to online stores, getting their groceries delivered in hundreds of, arguably unnecessary, plastic bags. Decreasing the number of plastic bags used is an issue that we, as customers, cannot solve – instead, governments and businesses must find a way to meet the demands of the environment and our health. What we can do is bring a reusable cotton bag anytime we go shopping in person and be mindful to only buy what we need to ensure a reduction in food waste. 

Reduce, reuse, recycle 

Reusing packages and materials as much as possible is one of the most effective ways that we, as individuals, can reduce our carbon footprint. At the same time, the initial uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 meant that there was an understandable fear of the virus surviving on materials for a prolonged period of time. 

Starbucks, amongst many other coffee chains, announced that they would no longer be using personal cups and mugs in their stores, instead of reverting to single-use cups. Whilst this of course makes sense in the context of COVID-19, it does feel like a huge step back for the industry. Back in 2019, many coffee shops had been charging less for drinks in reusable cups, an incentive that many people were getting behind. 

Furthermore, disposable, single-use masks are the most common way we are protecting ourselves from the virus. However, unless you are on the front line working with COVID-19 patients, there is simply no need to throw away your mask every day. Using a washable, reusable mask will reduce excess waste, allowing single-use masks to be given to those who need it, our healthcare staff. 

Reusable masks are also a cheaper option. So many designers (especially small, independent Etsy stores) are producing reusable masks at affordable prices, which will benefit small businesses at the same time. Equally, you might find that lots of your neighbours have started sewing masks in their spare time, giving the money made to charities. There are far more ethical and sustainable options for mask-wearing than single-use or even fast fashion masks. 

Fast fashion isn’t sustainable 

As you might have seen, Boohoo Group was recently accused of using slave labour, which is an all too familiar face of fast fashion. In addition to this ethical atrocity, the fashion industry is also responsible for a massive amount of waste around the world – according to the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the apparel industry accounts for 8% to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

During the times of quarantine, people’s eyes have been opened to the realities of the fashion industry through documentaries, podcasts, and exposés. Now more than ever, we are spending our days glued to our screens, where social media activism can be an effective tool in educating the general public on these issues. Second-hand clothing sites like Depop and Vinted are also on an uphill growth, and charity shops still seem to be a British staple – even Cancer Research did the jump to online sales this year. 

All of these are great places to get started on your sustainability journey, especially during the pandemic, when you can access these sites from the comfort (and safety) of your own home. Whilst some aspects of the sustainability movement seemed to be at a standstill due to the COVID-19, it is reassuring to know that the momentum of slow fashion is slowly picking up again. 

Can you be sustainable during a pandemic?

So, have mindsets changed? It is hard to predict just yet the effect that the pandemic will have on the sustainability movement. The optimist in me likes to believe that with the excess of time that many of us now have on our hands, we will be able to engage more with the sustainability movement and reflect on our lifestyles. 

A good mantra I like to stick to is this: it is better for many people to be low waste imperfectly than for few to live a perfect zero waste life. 

Ultimately, even the smallest steps in your day-to-day will have an impact. If you’re just starting in the world of zero waste, there are loads of different resources to get you started. Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home or Max La Manna’s Zero Waste Cookbook are some great starters – Johnson delves into her journey to living zero waste and gives practical tips on reducing your carbon footprint, whilst La Manna has a greater focus on food waste and gives a ton of recipes that use up all parts of your food. 

It might be obvious that being zero-waste during a pandemic is not everybody’s priority; however, we don’t necessarily need to put sustainability on the backbench. In the same vein, it is also important to acknowledge the privilege one has to have to live sustainably. Putting in the time, energy, and money to live a sustainable lifestyle is a luxury that many people cannot afford. Many zero-waste and ethical clothes shops still come with hefty price tags and the pandemic has already put a strain on many people’s financial circumstances.

Yet, whilst COVID-19 has brought about so much loss and uncertainty, it has also brought an opportunity. An opportunity to sit back and take time to reflect on our society’s practices – to slow down our excessive need to buy new and buy more and think about how we can assure a sustainable future for ourselves and our planet.

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