As lockdown eases in many parts of the world it seems that littering is back in a big way. Countryside beauty spots and urban open spaces have become the dumping ground for revellers frustrated after months cooped up with only their own habitat to despoil.
Now the corporate equivalent of littering could return. There’s nothing scientific about this suggestion, but from conversations it seems some manufacturers are using Covid as an excuse to cut corners on environmental standards, such as avoiding waste treatments on new production lines. Anything to reduce the capex.
Live to regret
And this week Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, said in the FT that those who would be tempted to use Covid as an excuse to pollute “would live to regret it”.
It’s understandable when money is short you’ll try every ruse to minimise expenditure. It’s what developing countries are doing with their energy investments: installing redundant, inefficient coal-fired power stations from China rather than cleaner but more expensive options. Low standards may be costly for the environment and human health but they’re certainly easier on the pocket.
It’s what the Trump administration has been pushing with its program to lower or eradicate environmental standards which prove irksome to those in industry who prefer a race to the dirty bottom.
Ever since environmental legislation was introduced, business has rightly called for a level playing field. This is, of course, difficult to achieve with global manufacturing and lack of international accord on environmental standards. Free riders will always take advantage of those who want to improve.
And yes, there are examples of companies who have tried to do the right thing, upped their standards in anticipation of promised legislation and then found themselves disadvantaged when the politicians failed to deliver. It’s a delicate balancing act: navigating legislation, pre-empting regulation, meeting the needs of customers, maintaining standards and keeping costs down. Some companies do it better than others.
If there is a moral to this situation it is this: it’s easy to find excuses to do less than your best – and now Covid provides the ideal excuse to lower standards further.
But lax standards have a way of biting back. That’s what happened to the US and European municipal recycling initiatives. These were predicated on China taking the West’s waste. It worked well for a while with tons of plastic going east and polluting China’s environment. China finally realised the shortcomings of its low standards and banned the import of the West’s trash.
If we had pursued high standards in recycling from the start, we would all be in a better place now. This is because we would have innovated and sustainable packaging would not be an oxymoron.
Judging by human nature it seems inevitable that we will continue to use Covid as a convenient excuse for not doing our best – littering and skimping on capex. Expect a messy, polluted post- Covid future.
Excuse me as I throw the remnants of my fried chicken meal from the car window. The cows love the secret recipe.