All over the world collaboration is happening to overcome the dire effects of coronavirus. On Earth Day 2020, Greta Thunberg’s quote that “no one is too small to make a difference” is in my mind. However, in order to have the biggest impact we need to come together in strategic collaborations to solve the wicked problems of climate change. 

Last November, which seems like such a long time ago now, I attended the Westminster Business Forum on Sustainability, Ethics and the UK Fashion Industry. It was a really thought provoking morning and after the event I tweeted that my takeaway in three words are: 

  • Transparency
  • Scalability
  • Collaboration 

Having written about the first two, Transparency and Scalability, Collaboration is the third part of the trinity. So much has happened in the intervening time that I felt I had to address some of our current issues. 

Worldwide collaborations (or not!)

One of the early examples of worldwide collaboration is that the Chinese shared the draft genome or DNA sequence for the virus on January 11th. This has enabled research labs worldwide to fast track the research into a vaccine for the virus. 

“Potentially really important moment in global public health-must be celebrated, everyone involved in Wuhan, in China & beyond acknowledged, thanked & get all the credit,” Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust in London, wrote in his tweet. On the same day the Wuhan authorities reported the first death from the disease. It is hard to believe that this was only four months ago.

The historic deal (or collaboration) between OPEC and the US preceded the collapse of the US oil market to negative values. This has never happened before, ever. The price of a barrel of US crude oil is now -$38, partly due to the market pricing mechanism. However, oil producers continued to pump crude oil despite the biggest slump in demand for 25 years. Having run out of storage space they are paying brokers to transport and store the oil. The brokers are hoping the price will rise in the coming months giving them a return on their storage costs. 

“The pact to cut between 10 million and 20 million barrels of oil from the market from next month was dismissed by many within the market as “too little, too late” to avoid a market crash,” wrote Jillian Ambrose in the Guardian article above.

I hear cheers from the Keep it in the Ground movement as this will mean that some oil production facilities may well have to close down as there is no market for their product.

On a more depressing note the US has blocked a 52 page communique from the World Health Organisation supported by the other 19 of the G20 countries. It was drafted to strengthen their mandate to coordinate the global response to the pandemic. Instead of this lengthy statement, the G20 leaders issued a brief press release that really said very little except that there are gaps in the way the world handles pandemics. I think we all know that, but it shows how a lack of cooperation and collaboration can cripple even the most illustrious and crucial world meetings. To cap it all, the US (the largest contributor to the WHO) has withdrawn its funding, citing criticisms of how the WHO has handled the pandemic. Not the right time and a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Community Collaboration

As I said in my last blog post, the seismic events of the past few weeks have made us all examine how we live, how we work and how we interact with each other. It has changed the way we look at the world. 

This has resulted in unexpected collaboration between government, state agencies, public services, businesses, retailers, community organisations, charities and, last but not least, between individuals – you and me. 

There are countless examples of friends and family, and often complete strangers, showing huge compassion and kindness to people around them. The Feed the Heroes campaign raised over €1M and has served over 78,000 meals to frontline health service workers. Hotels and property letting agencies have offered accommodation to health care workers. Local community groups such as GAA clubs have been volunteering to check on vulnerable members of the community delivering groceries to self-isolating and cocooning individuals.

On a personal note, last week I formed my own coronavirus lockdown collaborative partnership to record my first podcast episode. I provided the words and my musician son, John McCabe, did the production and music. I know I’m biased but I think he did a great job!

Climate Change and Collaboration

So what does this mean for climate change? Even the pandemic has had positive effects on the climate, witness the clear skies over Wuhan, London, Milan and many other industrialised cities, as I wrote in my last blog post.

But climate change is a more wicked problem that even a pandemic won’t solve. Looking over my notes from that day in November, the concept of collaboration came through from most of the speakers. Leah Riley Brown, Sustainablility Policy Advisor to the British Retail Consortium, talked about working together as a sector and an industry and a carbon road map for retailers.

It will be interesting to see how retail emerges from this crisis. Some big retailers are already falling by the wayside and maybe this is heralding a more fundamental change in the way retail business is done and will provide us with different choices in the way we shop. Consumer behaviour has changed overnight due to the lockdown and travel restrictions. And while some of the shopping has moved online, shopping as a leisure activity has more or less come to a complete halt. 

The repercussions for suppliers in already more economically precarious locations have been swift and brutal. Over £100M of orders were cancelled and suppliers are being pressured to offer discounts of up to 30% on items already in transit according to recent reports. When you consider that many of these suppliers’ business models rely on low cost labour, well it doesn’t take a Nobel-prize winning economist to figure out where in the world the worst sort of trickle down effects will be felt most.  

Less than 20% of global cotton production is independently verified as grown using more sustainable practices, according to the Better Cotton Initiative or BCI. Therefore 80% of cotton is produced using unsustainable practices. To make 1kg of cotton (a pair of jeans and a shirt), it takes the same amount of water as used daily by 28 Irish households. To change this imbalance will take greater collaboration between all the players in the long supply chain; the farmers, processors, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers through organisations like the BCI. Consumers have a role to play too in considering the true cost of what they buy. If something is a bargain, think about where the true cost is being paid down the line. This is where the carbon road map and transparency in the supply chain come in.

Collaboration is key to the solution

However, the wicked problems of climate change are about more than retail, even though that’s very close to my heart and very important. All businesses from the smallest to the largest have a responsibility to look at how they are doing business and to examine the supply chain for their product or service. This will inevitably mean thinking outside that proverbial box and collaborating with competitors, suppliers and manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprint.

The short term positive effects of the pandemic will be wiped out if we return to “business as usual.” Greenhouse gasses including carbon emissions have actually risen since the 2015 Paris Agreement, instead of falling as expected. Therefore we will all need to redouble our efforts to make up for those increases if we have any hope of keeping to the target of 1.5% – 2% increase in global temperatures, thereby avoiding the worst effects of climate change on our planet. 

Collaboration will be one of the keys to achieving this. We will have to rewire our approach so that we don’t return to business as usual post pandemic. Let’s hope that the positive changes and the silver linings from this crisis will enable us to achieve this.

© Retail Renewal 22/04/20

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