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Demanding more sustainable businesses

  • 19 May 2020
Before leaving the house, my bag usually resembles a picnic basket: there’s my reusable carry bag, stainless steel water bottle, reusable coffee cup, and if I can remember, my bamboo cutlery set. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my bag has become more like a normal bag, because most of my usual sustainability kit can’t be used at the moment.

Efforts to cut back on waste and move away from plastic have been put on hold as we collectively try to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Long-life food and non-perishable foods, cleaning wipes, face wastes, latex gloves and bottles of hand sanitiser have replaced fresh food, package-free goods and chemical-free cleaners. Add to the fact that many restaurants and cafes have for months have only been able to do take-away, plastic has been forced back into popular use.

Multiple media reports have focused on individuals and households moving away from sustainability — mostly because of understandable concerns about contamination — and yet, the conversation about the impacts of our biggest businesses and corporations hasn’t been as loud.

It’s a continuation of a narrative that places responsibility on the individual in a way that is disproportionate to their actual contributions. What about the country’s biggest polluters? Electricity, coal, natural gas retailers and waste disposal companies are the biggest sources of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Clean Energy Regulator, between 2017-2018, these were AGL Energy, Energy Australia, Stanwell Corporation, Origin Energy and CS Energy, which collectively emitted 116.1 tones of greenhouse gases in those 12 months, and in that same time, qualifying corporations contributed about 60 per cent of total Australian emissions. Compare this with the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that Australian households collectively produce. 

Professor Kathryn Williams, who is an expert in environmental psychology at the University of Melbourne, says it’s not surprising because our society puts the emphasis on change and responsibility on the individual, even when that contribution is much smaller. ‘It’s important that we work at both scales; we need to at a structural scale and individual scale, but a big system doesn’t change in society unless we — individuals acting collectively — demand that change.’

‘We need that big structural change, and we do need to have a conversation about that.’

'No one will argue that individuals and households do have a direct and important role to play in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. But the emphasis needs to