We Can Do This. Make Sustainable Choices under High Pressure.

Last week I had to travel for work. I doubted if I could go. Friends who were going to Italy for the weekend had cancelled. They thought the risk of contracting the coronavirus was too great. What was I afraid of? I’m not really in the at-risk group, so I wasn’t worried for myself. I was especially afraid of getting stuck in a hotel or infecting others. I asked a doctor friend for advice. He said I could travel fine, as long as I cleaned the table at my chair very well and washed my hands regularly. A mask was only necessary if someone around me was coughing continuously. I decided to go. The plane was more crowded than usual and the other passengers looked – just like me – a bit tense around them. Only in the air did I relax. I was sure it would all go well. 

Once on location restaurants, schools, and sports clubs were closed and traffic was quieter than normal. Even the usual smog was gone. I caught myself enjoying it, and for a moment I thought of the positive effects of the virus. In China a smaller amount of people than usual are dying from the effects of air pollution at the moment. In the Netherlands, many companies remain closed and people are working from home. No longer do they all have to get into the car to commute. The number of flights to various countries have also been suspended. It seems as if the world is holding its breath.

I was wondering if this could be the moment when we realise that we can all do with a little less. Christmas decorations will probably arrive too late in the shop this year, so last year’s baubles will have to do to decorate the tree. Electronic parts will not be delivered on time, so the supply will be smaller, and we will have to use our phones for another year. A holiday to Thailand is actually not very necessary. A holiday in the neighborhood is also attractive. Suddenly, sustainable choices become a lot easier to make. Strangely enough not because we are massively concerned about the future of our planet, but because we care our own health and that of the people around us. 

Unfortunately, this is normal behaviour. Our short-term view attaches the highest importance to our own immediate environment. Now under high pressure. But how long can we hold our collective breath? And will we return to our old patterns of consumption afterwards, because the economy is suffering, or because we no longer feel the urgency? Or will we continue to adapt our behaviour to the new reality, and will our world become a lot more sustainable: with local food, less stuff, local work, spending our leisure time in the neighborhood, and a less cluttered life?  Perhaps a society will emerge in which social entrepreneurs, who respond to local food supply, the share-economy, who create long-lasting products, or who stimulate reuse, finally get their due respect. These entrepreneurs have long been convinced of this necessity, and under these new circumstances their business climate is rapidly changing and the demand for their products and services is increasing. And the less conscious consumer also requires these products and services, because anything from far away may no longer arrive.

Asceline Groot is ondernemer bij hetkanWEL, schrijfster van ‘Het Nieuwe Groen’ en PhD kandidaat aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. In haar columns schrijft zij over (start-up) sociale ondernemingen en trends en ontwikkelingen op het gebied van duurzaamheid.