the environmental crisis of convenience

Problems. They’re the guiding light for founders building solutions. Since the turn of the millennium, human ingenuity has found creative ways to address the challenges of modern life in convenient ways.

This inventiveness has, of course, been helped by the growth of new technologies and the mass adoption of mobile phones, the combination of which has driven the rise of the ‘convenience economy’. The last 100 years of economic teaching has been based upon the theory that price drives demand. But nowadays, convenience is the greater factor at play.

Take Uber; Deliveroo; Babylon; Monzo. Each of these hugely successful start-ups has taken their respective industries and disrupted them by making access to products and services quick and easy. 

Some of you reading this might not remember the days of trying to find a cab in the dark of night. The summary is, there was never one around when you wanted one – and when there was, you didn’t have any cash in your wallet.

Now, you can tap your mobile phone and a car will arrive at your front door minutes later. You can track its progress and pay without thinking. Once you’ve experienced apps like Uber, there’s no going back. In our busy modern lives, time is the greatest commodity – and getting it back through a convenient offering is life changing.

We’ve become so used to this convenience that it has altered the way we consume. We want it all, and we want it now; we’ve become ‘entitled consumers’. This is especially the case for millennials and Gen Z, who have grown up with the ability to buy something through the tap of a button.

Yet there is, of course, a downside. We pay a price for embracing this ‘on-demand’ lifestyle.

The environmental footprint of convenience services runs into the millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions [1]. Our delivery culture in particular is damaging: just consider how many vehicles drove to your front door last week to drop something off. Then consider the impact it had on your rubbish and recycling bins – the rise in online purchasing means there’s even a global cardboard box shortage. Interestingly, it was never supposed to be this way: an online delivery system that made 20 different parcel deliveries in a day should emit less emissions than 20 customers picking up the same items from a shop. But in the era of instant gratification, consumers are encouraged to make a large number of smaller purchases, to the real detriment of the planet.

Yet the pursuit of convenience is part of human progress; innovation in consumption is inevitable, we can’t reverse these advances. We also have to recognise that many people will feel that switching to a fully-sustainable form of consumption isn’t a luxury they can afford. However, to believe that individuals don’t have agency or the potential to impact the bigger picture is simply unfounded. There is huge potential in making small changes to behaviours, habits and attitudes – not least because they can evolve into societal norms.

It might start with grabbing that Bag for Life every time you nip out the shops. Then you remember to turn the tap off when you’re cleaning your teeth in the morning. Then you wait for the dish washer to completely fill up before hitting the green light. And so on. It’s minor changes in habits like these that really impact both your individual carbon footprint and, in turn, those around you and their behaviours. It can culminate in a shift in societal attitudes that can be transformational.

I witnessed this in action when I moved to Switzerland in 2000. I was introduced to a society that had a deeply embedded bunch of environmental habits – and I immediately found myself falling in step and doing what everyone else was doing. Why? Human nature. We know that we like to follow the crowd. I was confronted for the first time with a number of bins, not just one for rubbish and one for recycling as we have in the UK. There was a specific bin for everything you could think of: batteries, coffee capsules, small plastic appliances, plastic bottle tops and so on. When they were full, everyone took them to the local recycling centre where they put the coffee capsules into the bigger coffee capsules bin and the batteries into the bigger batteries bin. So, I quickly found myself doing the same. 

When I then moved elsewhere, to places where this culture was non-existent, I really missed it. I hated the feeling of throwing something in the bin I knew I could recycle. I’ll be honest: moving to the second biggest global economy and realising that they don’t do anything about recycling made me depressed. I lived in a developed part of Shanghai – in many ways the epicentre of Chinese westernisation – and yet even here, there was nothing. Not even a community glass bottle recycling facility. It was pretty terrifying.

But I quickly realised that China is a country that moves at incredible speed when they decide to do something, with world-class outcomes – and that somewhat reassured me. The day when China decides to get with the sustainability programme, they will create the best recycling ecosystem the world has ever seen. The way they took on the preeminent train power of the world as soon as they realised Japan was making trains that were far better than their own, speaks to their drive to demonstrate their mastery of technology and build systems that are bigger and better than their counterparts.

But recycling centres are futile without demand – and that’s driven by people like me and you. Our attitudes and behaviours have huge ramifications because they create societal norms. I heard a sustainability expert being interviewed the other morning on the radio and the presenter asked them what the one piece of advice they would give to listeners who wanted to do their bit for the planet. I knew the answer before he said it. Everyone should think about the one small change they can make to their everyday lives that looks after the environment.

As banal and clichéd as those words sound, it’s advice to live by if you care for our planet. And the one you’re leaving behind for others.

 


Taken from w'air CEO, Jonathan Hewlett's LinkedIn blog post - click here

 

[1] https://blog.bccresearch.com/delivering-harm-the-environmental-impact-of-convenience-services

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