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The sustainability challenge

Epson research indicates that users do care about sustainability, but it's not as easy as just tapping into that sentiment

One of the unintended consequences of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic was the drastic reduction in carbon emissions from the profound effects of the near-global lockdown on air, bus and car travel. But while that reduction was a welcome development, the big question was whether it could be maintained when the recovery began.

The early signs were not encouraging. It didn’t take long for those emissions to start creeping up again once the world’s economies emerged from the first wave of the virus. It’s possible the lockdowns and restrictions currently being implemented by governments around the world in the face of a second wave of Covid-19 could have a similar effect on carbon emissions. However, it would be a shocking failure if the effectiveness of our sustainability efforts were dependent on the level of threat posed by a global pandemic.

In that light, I was interested to see recent research by Epson which claimed more than a quarter of the 4,000 employees and decision-makers surveyed identified sustainability as one of their top three priorities. In terms of where we might be heading, the research also found that 65% of respondents thought the environmental and social impact of businesses would become more important after the pandemic and 79% of IT decision-makers saw an increased role for environmental and social impact issues after Covid.

Let’s hope so, but there’s no guarantee it will happen as quickly as people would expect, or hope. While 75% of employees said they placed more importance on green issues following Covid-19, only 24% felt that businesses were making sustainability a priority.

At a recent roundtable with partners concerning the findings, Epson sustainability manager Daniel Quelch argued that “people really understand that looking at the information that we have and the science that we have, Covid-19 is an opportunity to hit the reset button, bring in new legislation and compliance, and bring green technology back in a better way than it has been before”.

His argument was undermined somewhat by partners at the event, who agreed it might be an important factor, but it probably was not the primary one. Understandably, more attention was focused on recovery and financial stability. Price was also a key consideration.

And that’s where we come to one of the major conundrums around sustainability and how it is promoted and sold. Less sustainable products are probably cheaper to manufacture and thus can be sold at a lower price because few of them include their true overall environmental cost in the final sale price. There is no requirement for them to do so.

Sustainable products may cost more to manufacture and frequently have a price premium attached to them as a consequence. But this pricing regime fails to take into account the lower overall cost of products that are far less damaging to the environment. Forcing customers to pay more for products that are cheaper to make seems counter-intuitive, but unless there is a requirement to include environmental costs into the price of the product, they will be penalised. In the meantime, customers will continue to be swayed by the lower prices of less sustainable products.

In essence, the current system subsidises the lower prices of environmentally unfriendly products. That’s not sustainable.

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