COP26 is a great start, but change starts at the ground level

COP26 – brings together over 30,000 individuals representing 200 countries, businesses, NGOs and faith groups to bring together answers to the most pressing questions of our time.

With this in mind, organisers have already pledged a number of initiatives to help ensure that delegates can travel to and from the conference with minimal impact on the environment. Accommodation will also be provided in and around the city centre to limit the amount of pollution and waste produced by the event itself.

Beyond this, there is space for organisations and individuals to support in the development of the conference and to carve out new norms to follow. At the top level, we are fortunate to have so many already committed to discussing and implementing the policy needed to steer us back in the right direction. But on the ground level, too, there is work to be done.

Feeding the 30,000 will be a challenge in itself. Producing badges, banners, lanyards and other branded materials will be another. Devices will need to be charged and facilities will need to be installed. Behind all of these factors will be a set of assumptions based on how we have set up these events in the past and long taken for granted as ‘the only way we know how’.

Here, it will be the role of other businesses and individuals to step up and revolutionise processes from the bottom up. In recent years, the efforts of a few pioneers have moved us from a position of sending our food waste to landfill – where it decomposes and pumps harmful gases into the atmosphere – to a country-wide sorting process that turns waste food into fuel. Smaller changes of this ilk will be crucial to implementing the aims of COP26 on a wider level.

First, there is the challenge of making the event itself more sustainable. Then, there is the challenge of translating the conference’s internal momentum into something that can be harnessed by individuals at all levels of sustainable decision making. The conversations that happen at COP26 should focus on what can be done with what we already have. We are fortunate to have so many already planning for the future and improving green production lines, but we can also do more with what we already have.

As founder of KAPDAA, ‘the offcut company’, it is frustrating to see narratives only asking what new materials can make production lines more green. Alongside this, we have to ask what we do with what we already have. If the UK wishes to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2030, forward-thinking businesses should be trying to ensure that 30.8m cars do not rust away in some foreign scrap heap. Every four-door throwaway has the potential to contribute to the waste problem or to help solve it. Every car seat headrest, every seatbelt or dashboard can find new utility solving modern problems.. And, of course, in this there is profit to be made.

In 2012, we saw a UK-based event of similar proportions, here creating massive waste and opportunity in textiles. The London Olympics saw streets filled with single-use banners and merchandise. In the months that followed, we worked closely with communities in Kingston to remodel many items into folders and notebooks for event volunteers. Clearly, the move towards sustainability will not begin and end with cars or bunting. At every level and in every sector, manufacturers and consumers will have new choices to make.

We recently celebrated saving 10,000 metres of material from landfill, working increasingly with brands that recognise the value of sustainability to consumers. Green choices, now in vogue, present lucrative opportunities that may have previously seemed a hassle. With 25% of consumers already judging sustainability to be of key importance when buying something, those slow to catch on stand to lose out.

COP26 is a crucial moment for global sustainability. Its events and seminars will pave the way for many productive conversations on how we approach our targets. But in a less abstract sense, there is also work to be done on the ground level.

The conference firstly provides newcomers with the opportunity to experiment, to pioneer new ways to do old things. And then, it gives room for us all to start thinking about the habits we take for granted. Those who make changes now create the possibility of a future where sustainability is an affordable and attractive option for businesses and consumers alike. But real change starts with us, everybody else. As the general public, as consumers and manufacturers, as businesses with a new stake in sustainability and as heirs to the earth, each and every one of us has a role to play in building back better. All of us have a choice to make.

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