As members of the Future Earth Knowledge-Action Network on Systems of Sustainable
Consumption and Production we have – as virtually everyone else – paid close attention
to the COVID-19 pandemic which is one of the most comprehensive and tragic public
health crises in a century. As we write this perspective article, the situation is
still in its early stages in many regions of the world and is continually evolving.
The practice of social distancing has entered daily lifestyles as individuals, governments,
communities, industrial firms, and academic institutions come to grips with the challenges
of minimizing the loss of human life in the face of an invisible contagion. We have
all seen figures on “flattening the curve” to help spread out the impact on medical
facilities. The coronavirus outbreak will diffuse, but behavioral actions are needed
to mitigate the number of contractions, illnesses, and deaths.
Some of the actions of social distancing include self-quarantining, avoiding large
gatherings, working from home where possible, sending students back to their residences,
providing online education, reducing travel (especially in confined and mass transportation
modes), limiting visits to stores, and many other everyday activities. Many of these
adjustments are in contradistinction to “normal” routines. At a time when we are being
prevailed upon to come together and to support one another in society, we must learn
to do so from a distance. But the behavior changes are necessary and some of them
may provide useful insight for how we can facilitate transformations toward more sustainable
supply and production.
Crises and Institutional Change
The public health crisis has impelled ⸺ and will likely continue to drive ⸺ a global
economic catastrophe. China's exports fell by more than 17 percent in January and
February 2020 and world trade is expected to decline by between 13 percent and 32
percent in 2020 (WTO, 2020). A widespread slowdown in economic activity is taking
hold with a record number of people being rendered unemployed in the United States
and elsewhere during March and April 2020. Stock markets have been gyrating wildly
and national governments are implementing vast financial programs to buffer what is
already shaping up to be an extended period extreme hardship. The coronavirus outbreak
is also having environmental consequences, with significant reductions in air pollution
due to large-scale slowdown in economic activity. The implications of the COVID-19
pandemic on sustainability remains to be seen, but deep and pervasive societal changes
are likely to unfold in the coming months and years.1
The historical record shows that crises including wars, famines, food scandals – as
well as pandemics – change institutions and can have long-lasting impacts on affected
societies (Polanyi, 1944; Mazier et al, 1999; Parker, 2013). An especially salient
example from which we can derive some instructive lessons is the financial collapse
of 2008. In this situation, regulatory, technological, and cultural changes occurred
to address the failings highlighted by the calamity. For instance, China invested
heavily in a stimulus package that included a significant focus on renewable energy
and this build up precipitated growth in relevant industries and reductions in production
costs that benefited companies and communities around the world (Zhang et al, 2016).
We see a window of opportunity for accelerating sustainability transitions in the
aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic (EEA, 2019; European Commission 2019; Cohen 2020).
The post-crisis period will afford rare circumstances to shift supply and production
systems toward a more desirable state. It is important that we plan for changes in
public policy and financial investment rather than forego the opportunity because
of a lack of timely action. One of our contentions, which we discuss later, is that
we should not allow the macroeconomic system, global supply chains, and international
trade relations as we have known them to revert to “normal” and “business-as-usual”
once the most immediate phase of the current disaster has passed. It will be necessary
to work assiduously to ensure the emergence and successful adoption of new types of
economic development and governance models and these societal changes will require
hard thinking, new behavior, and thoughtful action.
We will find ourselves over the new few months and years in the middle of a natural
experiment for sustainability. In the current discussion, we focus on the environmental
dimensions, but there are clearly major social issues as well. For this perspective
article, we touch on various actions taken in response to the coronavirus outbreak,
especially social distancing, to determine whether any good can come of this tragedy
from the standpoint of sustainable supply and production. We provide a number of examples
– many of which are starting to appear in the popular press – and consider how they
relate to these aspects of contemporary provisioning systems. Our goal here is also
to stimulate some additional thought by sustainability scientists and the sustainability
community more generally to learn from this extremely unfortunate and disruptive event.
The aim is to begin to secure the knowledge and to identify ways to inform our conceptual
understandings and ongoing activities. We identify several research questions to set
a small foundation for what we believe may be a way forward toward much broader sustainability
Sustainable Supply and Production in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Mandates imposed by governments and other responses to the COVID-19 pandemic provide
some initial indications of longer term actions on the part of policy makers, business
managers, and others interested in sustainable supply and production as well as the
prospects of sustainability transitions more generally. We initially discuss several
behavioral changes that have been implemented such as sheltering in place, social
distancing, and reductions in work-related travel in terms of both commuting and other
forms of transportation). We also identify issues related to supply chains, social
innovations, and technology resulting from the coronavirus outbreak.
Current practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic such as sheltering in place and social
distancing have profound implications. Public health directives have discouraged large
groups from congregating and self-quarantines have been recommended to help “flatten
the curve.” Workplaces have implemented new practices that reinforce this need for
isolation and separation and some job tasks are being performed on a distributed⸺often
At the same time, we have been seeing in recent weeks the emergence of opportunities
for people to build new skills and to shift away from energy-intensive forms of transportation
and to instead adopt telecommuting, virtual meetings, and online education. In the
United States, on a typical (pre-COVID-19) workday over 200 million people commuted
to work and thus releasing millions of metric tons of nitrous oxides, carbon dioxide,
and particulate matter. If a modest number, let us say ten percent, find these new
alternatives preferable from a cost and convenience perspective over the longer term,
especially individuals who are new to this mode of work, the likely environmental
benefits would be quite substantial.
Such practices are likely to become more common over time as users develop higher
levels of comfort with the relevant technologies and the communications platforms
themselves become more proficient in simulating face-to-face interactions. As we write
this perspective article, Zoom is ranked as the number one and number two videoconferencing
app in the US and UK, respectively. Service providers are learning a great deal about
the operational features of their systems as they are put under stress due to the
increasing traffic generated by simultaneous users. As quality and ease of use improves,
we are apt to see less physical travel – especially by airplane – after teleconferencing
becomes further normalized. Another crisis-motivated shift is likely to be modification
in the number of working hours per week. Prior research has demonstrated that there
may be advantages from fewer work days in terms of reduced demand for commuting and
increased productivity (Knight et al 2013; Kallis 2013). However, the net benefit
of these changes will ultimately be determined by how additional non-work time is
allocated and whether new forms of recreational travel are induced by the change.
General public gatherings may be less appealing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Societal concern and sensitivity to airborne contagions are likely to persist into
the indefinite future and this is especially likely to be the case with respect to
public venues that encourage close interpersonal interactions involving large groups.
For instance, large-scale entertainment and sports activities are likely to be less
agreeable places for people to congregate. There is apt to be a steep decline in public
forms of assembly as erstwhile attendees of such events eschew mass consumption activities
and the travel associated with them.
During the current public health emergency, various consumer goods are not as easily
available as was previously the case. At the present time, indications are that most
people have sufficient supplies of food and other essential products to survive, but
demand at food banks is rapidly rising due to increasingly dire financial circumstances.
Shortages appear to be the result of supply-chain inefficiencies and disruptions.
Thus far, the indications are that individuals – similar to the Great Depression or
during major wars of the last century – are learning to live simply and to adapt themselves
to extended periods of quarantine.
We can expect that the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt business managers and policy
makers to re-examine prevailing globalized systems of production based on complex
value chains and the international shipment of billions of components and likely prompt
establishment of new relationships and supply configurations. The coronavirus outbreak
exposes the vulnerability of overreliance on just-in-time (JIT) and lean delivery
systems. Separate from current travails, there has been a long-running debate about
whether JIT systems⸺which can be efficient in terms of resources and waste⸺are also
environmentally sound (Baumer-Cardoso et al, 2020). We will likely see in their place
implementation of smarter logistics systems, including reverse logistics for secondary
materials and waste products and enabled by Internet-of-Things (IoT) technologies.
For example, knowing the location of electronics and appliances and their components
through such means makes local sourcing easier. Furthermore, replacement of extensive
transportation of processed goods over long distances with intermediate storage, depots,
and material reserves is likely to gain renewed attention as inventory-buffering strategies.
In response to the need to build local resilience, supply and production systems (as
well as associated consumption systems) will likely in the future to become more localized.
Trends towards “glocalization”⸺localization of the global network and consideration
of both global and local aspects jointly⸺can be supported through additive manufacturing
technologies (3D printing) and online sharing platforms and these processes can be
further enabled and amplified by embracing current calls to establish a “right to
repair” which has become an increasingly prominent feature in debates on the future
of European consumer law (Terryn, 2019). Such legal guidelines would mean that users
would not be adversely harmed when trying to repair products by, for example, fashioning
replacement parts using 3D printing technologies. This shift would help to alleviate
durability problems caused by the tendency of manufacturers to design products for
premature obsolesce while encouraging greater reuse, recycling, and reclamation of
products and components (Slade 2006; Hernandez, et al, 2020).
With broader implementation of the right to repair there can be increases in the circular
economy concept (Schröder et al 2019). A circular economy can provide localized resources
from materials and products at the end of life⸺no matter the sources of these supplies.
Knowing what kinds of second-hand resources are available and where they are stored,
especially those that are locally rare, can be beneficial for planning purposes. One
popular example in the United States derives from the hoarding of toilet paper during
the period of social distancing and lockdowns. Toilet paper is treated in local sewer
systems and water-treatment plants. What if we had a technology that could separate
materials such as cellulose from other parts of the waste stream? There are microorganisms
such as bacteria that can be deployed to gather cellulose for recycling purposes (Römling,
Related challenges are not unknown. For instance, two decades ago, the city of Santa
Clarita in California launched a diaper-recycling program. Motivated by a desire to
reduce this source of solid waste, the community over a six-month period established
a collection system for soiled diapers and turned the discarded materials into useful
products like shoe insoles, roof shingles, and wallpaper (
The Economist, 2002).
Such circular economy solutions can further reinforce localization capabilities. Not
only is additive manufacturing advantageous in expanding opportunities for repair,
but materials from local supplies will also result (Garmulewicz et al, 2018). For
instance, recovered plastics and metals can be used as feedstocks for 3D printing
and these applications can provide opportunities for locally recycled materials and
other byproducts derived from local waste exchanges or eco-industrial parks (Jensen,
2016; Julianelli et al 2020; Dev et al 2020).
Distancing and technology
New advances in digital automation and cyber-physical systems are enabling the implementation
of decentralized manufacturing operations. These technological capabilities are valuable
for social distancing while maintaining production. Also, these systems can contribute
to reductions in energy and resources from travel. A notable example involves state-of-the
art warehousing using Kiva robots. In this situation, computer-controlled machines
replace human workers, but provide the added advantage that they can be directly operated
over longer distances. In addition, hepatic robots that have been used to perform
surgery from remote locations ⸺ a technological innovation that was initially motivated
by the need to overcome the problem of insufficient medical expertise in sparsely
populated regions (Wehde, 2019) ⸺ can be adapted for industrial purposes.2
Another example of a novel cyber-physical involves prefabricated housing in the UK.
There is, of course, nothing new about factory-constructed structures, but adoption
of such techniques in the residential sector has to date been quite limited. The development
of new technologies, including digital and robotic production and the provisioning
of “flying (i.e., temporary, localized) factories,” are challenging conventional practices,
offering productivity improvements and potential environmental benefits in the manufacture
and use of buildings (Iuorio et al, 2019). In this way, robotics could contribute
to the diffusion of off-site construction with triple bottom line benefits: economic
due to higher productivity; environmental by enabling more precise construction that
reduces the gap between designed and actual energy utilization; and social by potentially
reducing on-site accidents.
A final conception involving cyber-physical systems that is relevant from the standpoint
of sustainable production is the use of virtual reality to view and navigate through
built environments, a capability that can be extremely useful for facility design.
Linking these virtual systems to robots can be valuable in times of emergencies such
as when contagion is a major concern. Many workers in the grocery and healthcare industries
have been justifiably worried about their interactions in public settings. Robots
can be used for restocking shelves as well as in helping in care management and a
variety of other work activities (Corkery and Gelles, 2020). Virtual facility layouts
– three dimensional visualizations – can allow robots to act in place of human workers.
Accordingly, deployment of such systems may yield reductions in energy use because
of stepped down need for travel to and from work.
Data and Information Responses
While a full assessment is not yet available, initial evidence suggests that many
countries have encountered profound challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic determining
the availability of medical supplies and moving them to locations of most pressing
need. Numerous reports to date indicate that public health officials, hospital administrators,
and numerous others have encountered regular and repeated misallocations and shortages
of ventilators, personal protective equipment, and additional essential supplies⸺often
with tragic and life-jeopardizing consequences. The timely implementation of Industry
4.0 and smart manufacturing technologies could in the future help to alleviate many
of these bottlenecks and logistical complications. More specifically, blockchain,
Internet of things (IoT), and radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensor technology
provides for enhanced traceability and transparency in supply chains. In addition,
monitoring systems based on IoT applications can be integrated with satellite technology
and artificial intelligence. Such arrangements could save time, resources, and energy⸺especially
at moments when it is important to know in real time where critical materials are
situated in complex supply chains.
To be sure, enhanced data management would not have solved all of the dilemmas associated
with supply chains during the coronavirus outbreak, but if applied in combination
with scenario planning in the early periods of the crisis it would have been possible
to pre-identify constraints and to manage them more effectively. Addressing these
points of gridlock, whether pertaining to the sourcing of materials, the manufacturing
of products and components, or the distributing of emergency supplies could have been
facilitated with state-of-the-art information monitoring, sharing, and prediction
An example of these capabilities is WeBank's China Economic Recovery Index (Qi, 2020).
This system uses big-data analysis to measure human activity, from shopping to going
to work. Another aspect of the index measures industrial production using satellite
images. This information has been used to determine activity levels during the COVID-19
pandemic and could help to predict broader availability of resources (less activity
can mean less purchasing or fabrication). The collection and assembly of this information,
combined with the wider process of learning that occurs during a disaster, could be
used to predict potential sources of pollution and resource consumption in affected
The Dilemma of Insufficient Political Will
From Beijing to Delhi to New York, the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled notable improvements
in air and other waste emissions. In some global city-regions an entire generation
of people is experiencing relatively cleaner ambient conditions for an extended period
for the first time as well as generally clearer skies. But a number of concerns are
likely to return in the event that production and transportation return to prior levels.
Although there is likely to be a decline in carbon emissions in 2020, we can by no
means set aside our concerns about climate change. Even when there were previous reductions
of heat-trapping gases, for example after the financial crisis of 2008 (IPCC, 2014),
the drop was just a minor fluctuation in the long-term trend (Temple, 2020). On one
hand, with decreasing oil prices – due to lack of economic activity and excess production
– households, companies, and others will be motivated to increase their demand. One
the other hand, a protracted period of lower prices will make it unprofitable to continue
to supply energy from more difficult to access supplies and potentially push investors
to reallocate capital to renewable sources. Also, finance ministers, especially given
their pressing current needs to find new sources of public revenue, may conclude that
the period of low prices is the opportune juncture to impose substantially higher
taxes on fossil fuels.
It is furthermore not unreasonable to expect, as is already the case in the United
States, that governments will use the premise of revitalizing national economies to
disengage on climate change and to do all that is possible to put people back to work.
Avoiding this future and embracing the next few months as an opportunity to marry
the needs of equitable prosperity and climate protection will be a herculean, but
absolutely essential, undertaking. For many policy makers, we fear, it will be far
easier to (try to) revert back to the way things were – the comfort of the economically
and socially familiar – than to embark on an unknown and riskier new path.
Conclusion: A few research questions and opportunities
The world is in the midst of one of the most globally disruptive events in several
generations. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced society to place itself on pause for
an extended period. We are likely on the edge of a major transformation in how many
of us live – and how goods are produced and distributed. How we emerge from this process
will be determined by the course that the coronavirus outbreak takes, but we are by
no means powerless to shape the future and sustainability transitions are prospective
options. Sustainability scientists and others have been preparing for this moment
for the past few decades and are prepared for the challenge. But the complexities
are now more evident than ever and the consequences of failure are both serious and
This concluding section posits a few research questions – many more exist. First,
at the broadest macroeconomic level, the first question from the standpoint of sustainable
supply and production is whether we will return to systems of global supply chains
and lean JIT practices. This question opens up significant space for monitoring how
supply chain and production systems are reconstituted over the next few months and
whether the preponderant tendency is toward global or local sourcing. Or perhaps we
are looking to a future characterized by some new alternative that we can hardly at
this stage begin to envisage. What will be the impacts of this rebuilding process
on greenhouse-gas emissions and the environmental footprint of supply and production
more generally? What will be the implications for employment and industrial structures?
Second, how will firms manage their inventories of essential items in the months and
years ahead? With larger supplies on hand, even when there is no immediate need, facilities
will be needed for storage. Will supply-chain resilience require excess capacities
of all materials and will there be greater energy and waste losses from excess inventory?
Finally, the response of organizations to these questions will be influenced by individual
behavior. We have made a number of possible conjectures related to prospective changes,
but how many of them will come to pass? Will we see less demand for goods and services?
Will people travel less? Will they live more simply with a prevailing make-do-and-mend
attitude or will they upskill to facilitate a redeployment of labor? What are the
consequences of these changes for sustainability transitions? These and many other
questions provide opportunities for future research.
Cohen, 2017, Tseng et al., 2018