There’s a certain irony to the fact that it’s taken a global pandemic for us to see the largest decline in carbon emissions on a per capita basis since World War Two.1 With much of the world’s air traffic grounded, factories closed, freeways empty, people confined to their homes, we’ve all been given a crash course in low-emission living.
Where I live there’s a queue at the local farm shop every day, everyone socially distanced of course. Suddenly we’re all buying local.
Distance has collapsed.
Our company, EVRYTHNG, has operated as a geographically dispersed organization supported by a virtual infrastructure since its founding. This model has allowed us to benefit from a global talent pool and operate with great efficiency in serving our global customer base. But it’s really since March that we’ve come to appreciate the value in this method of operation. Distributed workforce has taken on a whole new meaning. And good news — it works. Whether I’m working with someone down the road or on the other side of the world, technology erases geographic boundaries. No doubt we’ll all be traveling less. Personally, it’s been at least a decade since I spent more than 4 weeks sleeping in the same bed every night.
All this is a benefit to the Earth. Virtual workforces, less travel, buying local — who knew we could make such a measurable impact in such a short period of time.
But clearly, this positive impact has come at a great price, and indeed is not sustainable — the paradox in the use of that specific word now tested to the extreme. Countries around the world have had to shut down, impacting the daily lives of billions of people. 187 countries and/or territories have implemented ‘stay-at-home’ measures in an effort to try to slow the spread of the pandemic. Unemployment levels are ramping at unprecedented rates, GDP declines forebear great suffering ahead, food supply is becoming challenged, social cohesion and stability pushed to the limits.
#EarthDay2020 is an opportunity to focus on the positive, and get a glimpse at what the possibility of global sustainability can provide. We know this global lockdown is not sustainable economically but it has afforded us the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate the way we do things — which seems the most appropriate way to honor the sacrifices being made by everyone around the world.
Mega-Shifts Benefiting the Earth
Some of the mega-shifts driven by the COVID-19 crisis are likely to stick around even after we emerge from the current global lockdown. We’ve witnessed a massive acceleration in eCommerce with many retailers declaring they will not be reopening their brick and mortar stores. Manufacturers are shifting to local sourcing and near-shore production for better resilience. And more subtly perhaps, we can expect to see a shift in consumer purchasing values post the immediate crisis — a longer-term ramification yet to unfold.
A New Consumer Goods Ecosystem
As the consumer products industry reacts and adapts to these tectonic shifts and re-formulates medium and longer-term strategies, it’s become clear the full value chain has to be taken into consideration — from sourcing and manufacturing, to eCommerce and retail, to recycling and reuse. The whole system has been disrupted, and the changes are not temporary.
With #EarthDay2020 in our minds, we find ourselves with the possibility and opportunity to respond in a more planet-friendly way. To step-up to the challenge of shifted consumer values and demonstrate that we can achieve planetary sustainability, and far greater resilience in our global systems. This is not a nice to have. The pandemic brings into the immediate many of the challenges climate change will inevitably force us to face.
More than 4 trillion consumer products are made, shipped and retailed globally every year. To sustain the reduction in carbon emissions we’re seeing today in a post-COVID-19 world, consumer product brands require end-to-end visibility into every product’s journey through the supply chain. EVRYTHNG was founded with a vision to connect every physical product to the web, providing the data intelligence necessary to help this $13-trillion global ecosystem achieve sustainability goals.
It is only through this unprecedented data intelligence — the ability to track and authenticate every single item from factory source to the consumer to recycling or reuse — can we make value chains more agile and efficient, and facilitate circularity and reuse / recycle at industrial scale. This technology is already playing an instrumental role as manufacturers react to a radically changed world where smarter supply chains and direct consumer relationships will define who survives and who doesn’t.
We have this unique and unexpected opportunity to change the way we operate. Now is a time for collaboration as never seen before to re-formulate and rebuild our value chain ecosystems for the post-COVID-19 world.
Let’s use this #EarthDay2020 to both celebrate the fact that we’ve proven it is possible to make radical changes, but also to focus on how we make those radical changes sustainable. This pandemic has reminded us of the power of data, and of the power of human ingenuity. We have an enormous opportunity to positively shape our post-COVID-19 world with the digital intelligence we now have at our disposal to achieve planetary and economic sustainability. Let’s do it.
1 The Global Carbon Project.
About the Author
Niall Murphy is CEO and co-founder of EVRYTHNG, the Product Cloud providing digital identities for the world’s consumer products. A computer scientist by training, Niall is a technologist, serial entrepreneur and angel investor with 25 years of experience innovation and future thinking. He has built pioneering businesses in Internet infrastructure, the mobile Internet and web services in Europe, the US and Africa. Niall is a contributor to the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Advanced Manufacturing and Production and a frequent speaker at venues around the world, including TED.