The New Normal: The COVID-19 Pandemic's Effects on Sustainability

Alissa (00:09): Hey, everyone. Welcome to “Get Real,” a podcast to empower you with sustainability know-how so you can improve your quality of life while doing your part to protect the planet. I'm your host, Alissa Stevens, an ecopreneur Star Wars nerd, and relentlessly positive champion for radical transformation. Join me as I delve into global sustainability issues, break them down, and most importantly provide you with actions. So you can be an eco leader and your everyday life. In this episode, you will get a sustainable snapshot of what's happening in global and national industries right now, mid COVID-19 and be challenged. How to think from the gut rail perspective, you'll also be challenged to think about what the new normal could be like and what you want it to look like before we dive in, I briefly want to talk about the concept of the new normal, you know, when the world shut down, I went through some really interesting spaces, first disbelief, and then anger, because I was totally convinced that the pandemic would distract from global sustainability progress and that initiatives would be postponed or watered down or abandoned altogether, but being the relentless optimist that I am, I chose to look at this in a new way.

Alissa (01:28): What if the lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 were the best news. The environment and humanity has seen in a long time, hear me out the world changed on a dime and turned everything we knew about what's normal on its head. We had to survive and adapt, and I witnessed miraculous events that I never expected or thought were possible. Countless countries came to each other's aid. Without question global brands took on humanitarian efforts in person events, from conferences to weddings, turned virtual families, zoomed all over the world. The hamster wheel of work slowed enough for many of us to step off behemoth industries that we would never bet against. Came to a halt. We may do with a fraction of the things we thought we needed -- pants, am I right? Business on the top sweats on the bottom? What I'm saying is that leadership showed up and in a surreal twist, I actually felt more connected to the world and inspired than ever in a lot of ways.

Alissa (02:29): But the funny thing is these new opportunities were actually available all along. We were just operating with other priorities. So as I see it, the reality we live in is purely a construct. The reality of today is not the reality of three months ago or three centuries ago or three minutes ago. And yet the actions taken in each moment ripple out into the legacy of human history. Now, with that said, let's talk about the new normal people are dying to go back to normal or to catapult forward into the new normal. I don't know about you, but I actually don't necessarily want to go back to the way things were. I don't want a new version of the same old world because so many of those structures do not work anymore. Wouldn't it be amazing to wake up with a blank canvas that we could create on rather than having to clean up yesterday's mess.

Alissa (03:27): First I'm talking. What if we didn't have to clean our air to have decent air to breathe? What if we weren't cleaning up oil spills? What if we weren't trying to save populations from extinction or, you know, stuff like that. What if that were not even a factor? And we could actually just build on top of what we already have. I think it would be a lot less hard and tiring and a lot more fulfilling. And I'm not trying to minimize the devastation that is happening in the world. It's unreal, you know, and it's so important to recognize what people really are going through. All I'm saying is that we have been given the incredible gift of pause and stillness. This is it. A once in a lifetime opportunity to actually build a world that has never been built before a more sustainable world that works for everyone rather than this massive disruption and upheaval happening to us.

Alissa (04:36): I think we have a chance to say how it goes. In fact, the only way we have a shot at a completely new future is to create from nothing. So let's grab the environmental destruction by the Mylar balloons and design a better future. Let's get real let's reassess, reimagine, rediscover, renew, rebuild, regenerate. Re-read all the way home until you get re anymore. Are you with me in just a few seconds, we're going to get into the industry snapshots and I promise each get real episode would provide actions. You can take plenty of those will come. And not that many in this first episode, I'll tell you why, because in order to know where we want to go from here, what actions we can take should take, would take, we need to know where we are. So plenty of actions will come, but rather than overload you with a ton of information right now in this second episode, I just want to lay the foundation.

Alissa (05:38): So as you listen, I invite you to be curious, what do you want the new world to look like? How will you make those conscious choices sustainable? All right, let's do it. First step is air pollution. Air pollution not only contributes to climate change, but as exacerbated by it, the pandemic is creating an Oasis of cleaner skies here in LA. The air is crisp and fresh. There was a stunning double rainbow that recently appeared over the Pacific ocean, which I think could have never been possible in the usually smog-ridden yellow gross skies. And you know, at first this was something to Marvel at. I was like, mother nature is happy. She's ah, she's taking a deep breath. This is the reset we need, but is it, I mean, let's look at the net net of the global lockdown regarding air pollution, starting with particulate matter.

Alissa (06:37): Particulate matter. Also known as PM. 2.5 is a microscopic pollutant that lodges deep into the lungs. Other organs in the bloodstream, which can cause serious health risks. Go figure a study by IQ air examined PM levels in 10 major cities during their three strictest weeks of lockdown. And the levels declined in seven out of 10 cities. LA saw its longest stretch of clean air on record with PM levels down 31% from last year, New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world saw a 60% reduction in the number of hours. Air quality was rated, unhealthy, dropped 41% people can actually see the Himalayas for the first time in their life in new Delhi, which is incredible. Seoul, South Korea saw a 54% drop and Wuhan, China, 44%. So all signs point to progress, but it's not surprising that now that the world is turning again, kind of sort of places like China are already reporting a rise in PM.

Alissa (07:41): 2.5 levels. It makes sense, right? Movement equals a rise in levels. Then there's carbon dioxide. A study by the global carbon project found a staggering 17% decrease in daily carbon dioxide emissions worldwide at the peak of global shelter in place orders, annual emissions will likely decrease four to 7%. This is unprecedented, it's remarkable. And we have to look at the bigger picture. So one of the Paris climate agreement targets includes limiting a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius after which there will be irreparable damage done to the environment and vis-a-vis to us. So in order to meet that target, we actually would need to cut global emissions 7.6% every year for the next decade. Meaning we just need to stay indoors for the next 10 years. Sounds simple enough. Right? I got the work-from-home life down. I'm good. Just kidding. Don't you think it's a little odd that the entire planet jolted to a stop for the first time in human history, I literally 7 billion of us for indoors for months, and we barely made a dent.

Alissa (09:00): Let's get real. This pandemic is not a reset. It's a pause, an extreme, forced, unnatural pause that reflects decades of unnatural structures that do not work or maybe worked for a time and actually created really an incredible progress, but don't work to further the health of our planet. We should celebrate these wins, but also recognize that, you know, they're, they're not it right? They're a glimpse into what the world could look like with structural changes in the economic transportation or energy systems with changes in how we produce, how we consume and how we discard. So with that in the background, let's get into some other topics. Plastics. Nowadays, plastics is an emotive word. I mean, what's your intuitive reaction to plastics or maybe it's just me. But when I think plastics, there are there's pollution. It's waste. It's cheap, it's convenient. It's versatile, it's evil.

Alissa (10:10): I've heard people say plastic is evil. Coronavirus waste is setting back goals to get away from single use plastics. So let's look at what COVID has contributed to plastic pollution. From the end of February to mid April, the UK distributed more than 1 billion items of personal protective equipment, millions of items are being thrown away every day and found on beaches. And seabeds, this should not surprise you, but it should wake you up. We depend on our oceans for survival, you know, efforts to tackle plastic pollution, not only improve ocean health, but support biodiversity, it tackles climate change and helps to build a sustainable livelihood. This is a multifaceted opportunity. That actually depends on our ability to change the role plastic plays in our economy. There's sentiment. I think that we are trying to move toward a single use plastic, right? All of the ability to not use reusable bags, the, um, rubber gloves, masks, all of that.

Alissa (11:17): I think people, a lot of people think that we're, there's a push to go back towards single use plastic, but I actually disagree. I think that we are trying to move toward hygiene. Hygiene is more vital than ever before. And this is a classic example of how our systems are built, where we have to sacrifice one commitment, environmental protection for another hygiene. So let's get real. How can we innovate to achieve hygiene? And it sustainable plastics aren't bad. They actually play really important functions in society. The plastic system, on the other hand, the system of take, make waste causes problems. So I say let's shift that and create plastics with value. Yeah. What if plastic were designed from the outset to be more valuable or what if plastic waste could be given a value? There's a $10 billion business opportunity in recycle that's radically like that's a radical opportunity.

Alissa (12:28): Let's radically improve recycling. I do think businesses and government are obligated to set up a plastic system, but we consumers also must be open to engaging with that new system. If it's not obvious, I get really excited about plastics. So expect numerous episodes on the complex plastic system and companies that are changing the plastics game. And in the meantime, I invite you to take a look around your house and run your office, run your car in your garage. That's a good one to take a look, look at what around you is plastic. Oftentimes there are items that have four different kinds of plastic in one. So I invite you to just take a look around and see what's there. Because from there you can start to speculate on what kind of specific changes you could make next up is agriculture. I've always said that sustainability occurs as a nebulous kind of out there phenomenon.

Alissa (13:37): If you hear projections of what the world will look like 10 years from now, or 50 years from now, maybe in a faraway country, things like that, it just kinda, it seems like an "over there" thing, like an out there thing, right? Not a personal me thing. And when we experience something firsthand, though, it becomes real and food waste became really real for me. When I worked in restaurants for six years, logically I knew that a ton of food was being wasted, right? And that there were people around the world without food, but that took on a whole new meaning after I was scraping endless plates of having meals into the trash. So let's look at a picture of U S agriculture since COVID 19. And I picked U S the U S specifically, because worldwide there are trends, but I think having a more personal angle on this one will be more impactful.

Alissa (14:41): So as restaurants, hotels, and schools across the nation closed for quarantine, farmers had to destroy tens millions of pounds of fresh food. And start again, as two examples, farmers in South Florida are plowing perfectly right beans and cabbage back into the soil in dairy farmers are dumping an estimated 3.7 million gallons of milk each day and doing everything they can to find places for excess milk, even lobbying pizza chains, to use more cheese on every slice. So with panic buying grocery store prices, increasing and food banks with one mile lines, making desperate pleas for donations, how is this possible? The U.S. essentially has two food supply chains. Farmers, either contract with food service suppliers or grocery retailers, crops are processed and packaged specific to each market. So either in bulk or consumer sized packages and the machinery is designed accordingly. So shifting supplies from one market to the other, in this case from food service to retailer is difficult and costly.

Alissa (15:53): And time-consuming transporting crops to food banks in areas of need could actually cause more financial burden and consumption habits change when people cook for themselves. So the best choice for many farmers is actually to plow the crops and start over and bury countless jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars. Along with them. This is not meant to scare you. I'm just saying that as a consumer, a lot of the time, I don't know what happens on the other side of the wall in the supermarket, do you, and to me, this is bigger than food waste. It's actually food security COVID was a giant shock to the food system that showed serious health, human and economic consequences. So I'm thinking what happens the next time a forest mature puts one of our basic needs under serious pressure. How do we reimagine our food system to promote resiliency and adaptability while also expanding our business?

Alissa (16:56): Could it be urban agriculture, community supported agriculture? I think it's a combination of a lot of solutions and we'll get more into this, but really, I just want to challenge you to take a look in your own life and see what it's like for the farmers out there. So this week when you're cooking or in your kitchen, write down the amount of food you throw away, either because it's spoiled or you're just not into it anymore. Uh, write down the amount of food that you throw away and what you paid for it. So you can really see what the cost is while on the subject of food supply, let's spotlight, the American meat industry, COVID forests, the closure of major meat processing plants and slaughterhouses at the same time, demand for meat increased in fears of shortages prompted bulk buying. As a result, many people have been forced to live with less meat and more meat alternatives demand for plant-based meat jumped 35% between April and may.

Alissa (18:03): Grocery sales of alternative meat products Rose by 264% from March 1st to May 2nd. And for the first time, plant-based meats are competitive with ground beef in price, and sometimes easier to find. So the question is what potential long-term impact could COVID have on people's diets? How many people will reevaluate their diet overall as a result of this, and will people turn to a more plant-based diet going plant-based meaning eliminating animal products from your diet is one of the single most impactful lifestyle choices, possibly the most impactful lifestyle choice you can make to combat climate change as an individual. Why is that? Livestock are responsible for 12% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions, more than that, of the entire aviation industry. And on top of that extensive land, water and energy are required to process meat. If you just look at a classic American meal, the hamburger, the environmental implications of going plant-based are a huge, the beyond burger from beyond meat is my favorite plant-based burger.

Alissa (19:17): It's delicious. It's awesome. You should try it. This is not an ad. I just love it. So take the beyond burger compared with a quarter pound beef burger, the beyond burger uses 99%, less water, 93%, less land, 90%, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 46% less energy Americans eat an estimated 50 billion hamburgers every year. That's an average of three burgers per week. So if Americans were to just switch one of those beef burgers to a beyond burger for a year, it would be like taking 12 million cars off the road and saving enough energy to power, 2.3 million homes that is some serious plant powered ROI. Now let's get real. There are people who are willing to say, bye Felicia to me forever. There are people who are itching to get back to their favorite steakhouse. And there are flexitarians and there's everything in between. So many reasons go into why people eat the way they do.

Alissa (20:21): And as an opportunity. This is why I love food so much. Well, I love food, but as an opportunity for sustainability, more sustainable food will have more dividends. It's cheaper. It lasts longer. It can make you feel better. It takes less processing and it's reliable as a food source. So there's a lot of emotion wrapped up in food. There's memories, culture, community, even your personal taste buds. As an example, my grandpa, Bob makes this lemon chicken he's made since I was a kid. And I will take that lemon chicken all day, every day. My mom makes amazing tri-tip sandwiches. And I lived in Madrid during college, which is I had more ham and cheese than any human being should consume in their lifetime. But that's beside the point. You're not even touching other influences like health needs and costs. There are so many facets that go into why people eat the way that they do.

Alissa (21:25): So with regard to trends and where diets could go. I believe that demand for meat will stay, but that demand for plant-based will continue to increase. I think that COVID exposed people to plant based foods who might not have otherwise tried it or who completely scoffed at it. And I also think that reports of illness among meat processing workers is really having people be more alert and suspicious about how safe the meat supply really is, right? Not taking things right at face value and actually being responsible about what, what they eat. So you don't have to become a vegetarian, but I think that in the new normal, we should think twice, how can we enjoy foods we love while being mindful of their impact on the planet and why not redefine what meat is, right? Like, what is it as a protein? What is meat even?

Alissa (22:31): What could it look like? Or what could it be defined as, how can we combine cutting edge technology with agricultural practices to innovate? How can we create less dependence on the meat industry and a more safe and secure meat supply and food supply in general? Now this is all food for thought pun, very much intended. And this is a perfect segue into green investing in the same way that we need food that is safe and secure. We need to invest our money, where to safe, insecure in the new normal, how will consumers and investors invest their money to ensure it is protected against market volatility. Sustainable investing includes funds that integrate environmental, social and or governance factors also known as ESG factors, pre COVID sustainable investing had actually come a really long way more than a quarter of assets under management globally are now being invested. According to the premise that ESG factors can materially affect a company's performance in market value. Also it's worth noting that sustainable funds have actually fared better than nonsustainable funds. During the pandemic globally, they attracted an estimated $46 billion in net flows during the first quarter of 2020, even as the overall fund universe suffered 385 billion in outflows. Although sustainable fund assets were down 12% at the end of the quarter, they fell 6% less than the overall fund universe.

Alissa (24:14): Sustainable funds registered record growth in Q1 2020, and several major investment management companies, including BlackRock, Allianz, and Invesco revealed that their ESG investment allowed them to weather. The financial downturn of COVID better than their competitors. What's more governments inner governmental organizations, wall street and main street are pushing ESG funds importance with plant-based funds actually trending. There's a United nations backed organization, as well as a former hedge fund manager and others who are urging investors to back plant-based products. In fact, Canada just invested nearly a hundred million in vegan meat. So the superior performance of ESG funds during this time of market volatility will likely increase investor trust in ESG funds going forward, but let's get real trust is great, but why are we still relating to this as sustainability investing versus investing the UN organization that is encouraging investment in plant-based products? Smartly noted that forceful policy response to climate change is actually not priced into today's markets.

Alissa (25:33): And yet governments will be forced to act more decisively than ever when, not if when climate disasters happen, which will expose investor portfolios to significant risk. So the longer the delay, the more disruptive and disorderly the policy will be on the markets. So when you look at it that way, sustainable business is just smart business. I think it should no longer be a question of why, but why not? It's responsible investing. It's investing in values that you can actually get behind, right by betting on what has longevity and will protect the planet and protect you in the long run. So in the new normal, how can we integrate our ESG commitments with our investment goals and strategies to not just further this agenda, but actually prepare markets for climate related policy and regulatory risks and even more. So how can we reevaluate valuation per what's really happening in the world?

Alissa (26:44): All right, we have covered five industries so far. You've gotten a lot of media ideas and information pun intended. I think it's time to just take a pause and let it all marinate and take this food for thought. I couldn't help myself. I'm sorry. Take this food for thought into the next episode where we've got six more industries, recovering transportation, fossil fuels, education, health, and wellness, fashion, and intersectional environmentalism. So I'd want to leave you with something really powerful out of that episode to carry you in episode four, where rough start getting into some effective actions you can take from the bottom of my ego heart. Thank you so much for being with me today. I can't wait to see what we create together. If you loved what you heard and are hungry for more, don't forget to click subscribe in this app. Also, I want to hear from you, tell me your burning sustainability questions, or even what's inspiring you by following me on Instagram at get real with a S or liking the get real Facebook page. Talk to you soon.

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