The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity that we mustn’t waste, says the founder of the Sustainable Business Network. "This is our 1-in-100 year opportunity to think about how we redesign the whole blimmin' system," she says. In this interview, she tells Melinda Williams how that might be done. 

For more than two decades, as founder of the Auckland-based Sustainable Business Network, Rachel Brown has helped guide corporates, government agencies, small businesses and individuals towards greater sustainability. Melinda Williams talks to her about how the COVID-19 lockdown might help accelerate New Zealand businesses towards a more sustainable way of operating.

Melinda Williams: Hi Rachel, nice to see you in this sustainable new world of Zoom meetings! 

Rachel Brown: Yes, hello! I was on Breakfast this morning, and that was one of the things we talked about – we’ve all been forced to learn to use [new technologies] and now we’re starting to go – is it time to work from home? When we can go back to work, we might not need or want to go in every day any more. We’ve always done that at SBN, worked from home a lot. Until recently we’ve had an office at Britomart but the building is being refurbished, so we will be moving out. In fact, we were meant to move out on the first Friday under lockdown, but we couldn’t do it! So technically we are still there. 

How’s your team at the Sustainable Business Network doing?

We’ve got a small team – 22 staff – and to keep that team active, every morning we meet, connect in for an 8.30 start. Just to keep people connected. I think there’s a process that the organisation and the staff need to get their head around. You do need motivation, you need to feel like you’re still contributing, and to do that you need a bunch of systems. That’s what we’ve done, set up our staff so we stay connected.

You’ve published some research recently on how the lockdown has affected carbon emissions, haven’t you?

One of our team, Phil Jones, has tried to understand the implications around climate. Before this all happened, we were all talking about climate very actively, our kids were protesting, there was a lot of demand for something to be done. Now that conversation has stopped and we’re all talking about jobs. What we’re saying is yes, we do need jobs but we can’t keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it, which is burning up the climate. 

So we looked at the 2017 figures of greenhouse gas emissions and worked out what had reduced because of lockdown. What we’ve worked out is that about a quarter of emissions have dropped, most of that from transport but also some from waste. We’re not buying as much stuff, we’re not creating as much stuff. We’re not building – which is a massive contributor to carbon. What we have a chance to do now is to not race back to the way we were doing things. We get a chance to stop, redesign and not come back into a system that our kids are getting angry with us about.

So, to take transport as an example, obviously we can’t just stay home – although we might commute a bit less now that we’re better at working from home. What does a different transport future look like? 

I think what we’ve avoided doing forever is investing in alternative systems. We’ve invested in roads forever, and we spend a lot of money investing in roads. What we’ve got to do is change that investment. We still need to build things, but let’s build wider footpaths that people can enjoy walking up and down, wider and better cycleways. Imagine if we invested in quality electric buses that are really nice to travel in. They’re not massive but they’re more frequent. Quieter, less polluting. I’d love to use that kind of publicly invested transport system.

So it’s about a shift to clean vehicles rather than reducing travel?

There are some really neat companies coming through, like the electric car share company Zilch. Imagine if you didn’t need to own a car any more, but you could get access to one of the newest electric vehicles in the country just by being a member of Zilch. You don’t have to cover a warrant, rego, repairs, anything like that, but you can access it whenever you need to. Those kind of models are starting to come through. In the future we won’t even need to own cars. Imagine what you’d free up in space in garages where cars sit a lot of the time. All that extra space in your home instead of a smelly polluting car.

So changes to help the climate also have positive flow-on effects in the personal space.

It’s just about changing that initial investment. I sit on a mayoral task force and at the moment we’re talking about how to build out of these things, what we need to do to restimulate the economy. Infrastructure is a classic one. We’re asking ‘What’s the infrastructure that we need now, because the old infrastructure is failing us.’ If you’ve got a car now and you need to get to work, you can spend an hour sitting on the motorway. What a waste of time. It’s unpleasant, you arrive feeling agitated. Imagine if we could soften and quieten all that down to make getting to work pleasant. That’s how we need to view the shift we’re going through. This is a one-in-100-year opportunity.

Did we learn anything from the last pandemic that applies here?

There are actually, and also from the GFC. My son is doing his speech on the pandemic, and he’s been looking at the Spanish Flu and what innovation came out of that. There was a lot of innovation around medical stuff, photography, movement, how we moved. A lot came out of it because we were forced into a time of innovation. That’s going to happen now too. With the Global Financial Crisis, Uber came out of that. People started looking at new ways of moving around. People started asking how it could look better for them. I think those questions will start being asked more now. How do we create better houses, better infrastructure, things that work better for us and also for the planet?

That’s an important question for businesses – how do they remain economically sustainable while they’re becoming more sustainable for people and the planet. That’s a challenge that Uber, for example, doesn’t seem to have solved yet.

If you think about what COVID is – as with SARS and other diseases – it’s been an example of us not looking after animals pretty well. A lot of viruses or vectors, come from the ways that we’ve been doing things poorly, which leads to an out-of-control impact across society. So that’s a big learning for us. We can’t pretend we are not part of nature. We are. Although it’s a virus that has hit us this time, it could be any number of big events that can hit businesses across their supply chain and cause disruption. What businesses have to get really good at doing is understanding their risk profiles and making sure they can handle some kind of disruption like COVID has caused. That’s real resiliency. You have to know you can handle a sideswipe and you have already thought to some degree about what it might be.

What services or resources can you offer to businesses who are interested in increasing their resilience and revising their models to be more sustainable?

At the moment we’re open-sourcing our resources. We’ve got stacks of resources on everything from how do you really efficiently do a retrofit of your office, through to climate change and so on. There are around 20 really useful resources online. We’re also starting to do a big piece of research around climate action, targeting small to medium businesses. A lot of small and medium businesses are getting pressure to know what they’re doing around climate and they don’t have a clue. We’re doing a big piece of work with a whole lot of agencies and corporates that would make it really easy for anyone to know what the right thing is to do, but also inspired them with the new kinds of business models that are starting to emerge. That’s a big piece of work. 

What are the key changes that consumers can make to support businesses as we emerge?

As consumers there are two critical things. First, ask what the thing you’re buying is made of – has whoever’s made it thought about where it’s come from? Have they got a good supply chain, are they paying people well, is the stuff that’s incorporated into whatever you’re buying safe? The other thing is whether you know what’s going to happen to it at the end of its life. You know you can either send it back to the people you bought it from, or you know it can be reused or refilled or recycled. Those are things that all consumers can do right now, and get behind New Zealand companies that are doing those things well.

Tell us about the online, open-to-all event ‘CEO Forum: The New Economy – Resilience and Regeneration’, which is being held on Friday 17 April at 9am-11am.

Yes, this is our one-in-100-year opportunity to think about how we redesign the whole blimmin’ system, from the way that governments act, how we measure what’s important, through to the way that businesses actually deliver their products and services in a way that doesn’t undermine, but redistributes wealth and regenerates nature at the same time. Because that’s nirvana. So how do we get there?