Knowledge for a sustainable world

Valerie Nelson, Professor of Sustainable Development, NRI |

Can the current health crisis lead to the kinds of changes we so urgently need to combat the interconnected climate and environmental crises we face? What does COVID-19 mean for food, agricultural, livelihood and community systems? Post-pandemic, the world will not and cannot return to ‘business as usual’.

The pandemic is making painfully obvious the fragility of the globalised economy. Already it is clear that there will be a huge impact on the global economy, and the poorest people, and those with precarious jobs and livelihoods, will likely be the hardest hit, as they have the fewest resources to cope and adapt. The poorest, including a disproportionate number of women, will struggle because they have limited cash, access to health care, work opportunities and the means to store food.

Formal jobs in global supply chains are also under threat, and in the short term, there are human rights risks in terms of the non-payment of wages and sick pay. In the global apparel sector, an estimated $1.5 billion of Bangladesh garment orders have been cancelled at 1,089 garment factories, employing more than a million workers. And so arises the question, ‘What is a responsible business in such circumstances?’ Primark, a British-owned budget fashion chain, earlier this week cancelled all supplier orders which had not yet reached their distribution centres [1]. While governments are stepping in with measures to shore up their economies, poorer nations have less opportunity to do so and it is not yet clear what will happen to the millions of low-paid workers in the garment and other sectors in global supply chains.

The crisis also shines a spotlight on the resilience of food and agricultural systems. Food researchers have long pointed out the non-resilience of food systems in the face of different types of shocks, such as disease and those related to climate change, which are heavily reliant upon supermarkets and global supply chains. For example, half of the UK’s food and 90% of fruit and vegetables are now sourced internationally (see, for example, Tim Lang’s book on ‘Feeding Britain’ 2020). Despite the growing awareness and action from governments, companies and people on challenges related to the climate, environment and inequality, climate change represents a challenge of a different order, as the environmentalist Bill McKibben has said: “If we don’t win very quickly on climate change, then we will never win. That’s the core truth about global warming. It’s what makes it different from every other problem our political systems have faced” [2]. Because of the tipping points involved in climatic systems – without sufficient action, the “climate will shift into a dramatically different climate regime, and on to a planet abruptly and disastrously altered from the one that underwrote the rise of human civilization” [3].

To move beyond incremental change and achieve sufficiently far-reaching shifts in food and agricultural systems, and across all other areas of economic activity, will require system-wide, transformative changes. Current national responses to the Coronavirus are varying in nature, but all demonstrate that rapid and large-scale behavioural change is indeed possible. Further, it is clear that people want governments to show adequate leadership in response to a crisis. Many more people are now realising the importance of the local; the pandemic forces us to re-evaluate our connections to local people and places, and to think carefully about and reflect upon what we value most. This could lead to a rethinking of global value chains and of globalisation in general – a process which has left so many communities behind, while seeing excessive concentration of wealth into the hands of the few, and which has created so much environmental damage that there is now an existential threat to the survival of the human race.

Thus, a window of opportunity is opening that we should seize – to change our political and economic systems for the better. We know that current efforts to reform global supply chains are failing badly (see the ‘Systemic constraints to achieving responsible business in global supply chains’, Nelson and Flint, 2019). While frameworks and regulations are increasing in certain jurisdictions on human rights and environmental damage, these alone will never be sufficient or a ‘silver bullet’. A recent paper, ‘Assessing the impact of human rights due diligence on workers and smallholders’ by Nelson, Flint, Ortega (2020) concludes that ultimately more far-reaching changes are required.

There will be those seeking to profiteer from the disaster and to remake the post-pandemic world to suit their own self-interests [4]. However, prior to the pandemic, there have already been growing calls from campaigners and researchers for a future economy that operates within environmental planetary boundaries [5] and is equitable in nature. Street protests erupted around the world in 2019 on seemingly diverse issues, but the protest movements shared a common basic desire to be heard and for a better life. Environmental protesters called for more action, in 2019 especially, given the climate and ecological emergency. While the world’s attention is currently focussed on responding to COVID-19, the window of opportunity opens for transformative change. There is a chance that calls for and action on a different kind of economy in the future will be significantly amplified by the pandemic and its human impacts.

Within the world of responsible business, a movement has already been growing which focuses upon ‘regenerative business’ and within agriculture on ‘regenerative agriculture’. Essentially, anything regenerative is something that restores, renews, and revitalizes or regrows the source of its energy and materials. The current Coronavirus crisis, and the existing and impending effects of the climate crisis, demonstrate that we urgently need more regenerative politics and economics. The term regenerative, like any good buzzword, is being interpreted in different ways, and is perhaps a catch-all for many existing approaches and concepts. But it may also be an idea whose time has come, given the current context, especially where it refocuses attention and investment appropriately in local and place-based solutions.

Social research on ‘how change happens’ [6], especially in complex, interconnected systems, highlights that change in invisible mental models, narratives, mindsets and norms are needed to unlock wider societal change, not only changes in visible policies and resources and semi-invisible relationships and power relations, although these are critical as well. Thus, the current global disease crisis, which actually plays out in a context of rising biodiversity losses, chemical pollution, climate change, and inequality crises amongst others, has changed ‘normal’ forever, and will have highly unpredictable and myriad consequences. But there is a chance to seize the narrative to build more regenerative systems, including those for food and agriculture. Our Development Programme on Sustainable Trade and Responsible Business (STRB), in collaboration with partners around the world, will be focusing this year upon what this really means in practice, and what are the necessary levers and mechanisms needed to make the transitions, especially focusing on regenerative economies that are local, place-based, involving of community ownership and decision-making, and are accountable to local populations. Global solidarity is also critically important at this time – not least in order to devise a short-term global food security plan, and also to ensure that government investments and decisions enable a positive shift to regenerative and accountable enterprise and economies.

[4] N. Klein (2007) ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’
[6] Duncan Green (2016) ‘How Change happens?’, OUP Oxford; Kania, J., Kramer, M. and Senge, P. (2018) ‘The Water of Systems Change’, FSG, June 2018.