Most of us want the government and brands to prioritize sustainability even while facing other issues.
When the coronavirus shutdown hit California, San Diego-based clean manufacturing firm Genomatica sent its desk workers home to work remotely, which gave more room to its lab workers to maintain physical distance from one another. As the weeks went on, Genomatica’s co-founder and CEO, Christophe Schilling, says that he and his fellow Genomaticans began to notice something.
“The air was cleaner,” he says. “It was quieter. I could see stars and satellites at night in ways that I couldn’t before.”
In a sense, Genomatica is in the business of sustainability. Using fermentation—the same biology process used to make beer, cheese, and bread—Genomatica makes bio-based alternatives to the petroleum that would normally go into your nylon clothes, your coffee capsules, and even your skin care products. So when the skies cleared and the price of gas fell, Schilling saw the kind of changes in the world his company is striving to make.
“Humankind’s impact on nature and our environment became very visible to me,” he says.
But not everyone works at a place like Genomatica where sustainability is top-of-mind, and Schilling began wondering what the rest of the world was thinking. And so it was that four months into the coronavirus crisis, Genomatica sought to find the answer.
Sustainability is top-of-mind
In a new study, Genomatica reports that “sustainability has moved from a fringe preference into a core imperative across American life,” with 85% of Americans reporting they’ve been thinking about sustainability the same amount or more during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of those who thought about it more, 45% noticed less traffic and 24% noticed cleaner air. The study also reveals that more than half (56%) of Americans want both the government and brands to prioritize sustainability even while facing other issues.
“The results inspired us more,” says Schilling. “What we were feeling is being felt by a lot of other people.”
Genomatica did a similar survey about a year ago, in which consumers said they wanted to make sustainable choices, but confusion and lack of transparency made it difficult for them to know what to do.
But as more and more bio-based products come to market, along with stories about how companies can replace the petrochemicals used to make them with high-performance, natural alternatives, it’s becoming easier for consumers to make choices that better align with their personal values.
It’s not always obvious for people to know what to do about climate change, Schilling says, but increasingly people are able to make choices every day about the products they use.
Environmental leadership in a time of crisis
For Genomatica, the stay-at-home order has meant virtually no travel and a lot more Zoom calls. “And there’s some real good to that,” says Schilling, as his employees have learned new ways to be effective at their jobs without the usual carbon emissions. He says he’s blessed to be in an industry that is passionate about what it’s doing.
“You don’t know if you have a great culture until it has been tested,” he says, citing how the shutdown has created new leaders within Genomatica. For example, lab workers continue to evolve the company’s safety culture and practices in the face of the pandemic.
“There are countless examples of people who are not senior leaders, but they find themselves in a particular situation in this environment, and they step up into leadership roles in amazing ways,” he says.
Sustaining the momentum
The Genomatica study shows that people are thinking about sustainability as much as ever, but what does Schilling think the government can do to help people and companies like his to do something about it, while also easing the economic turmoil of the coronavirus crisis?
Schilling says there’s no single, specific policy to fix our economy and the environment, but he points to the federal investment in the cleantech industry around 2004-2007—particularly around biofuels—as one kind of useful step. Those investments steered hundreds of millions of dollars towards fuels technologies, which Schilling says pushed fields like synthetic biology to get better and better at combining advances in machine learning, automation, and gene editing to make a bulk commodity at a cost-competitive price.
“But it’s not just about fuels. It’s also about other higher-value chemicals and materials,” he says. “As the power of biotechnology gets better and better, we should be able to make things at lower and lower costs.”
“We see a lot of action being taken in Europe, which is almost like a regulatory superpower on these issues,” says Schilling, whereas the US government has not been as proactive. “But there’s a lot of ingenuity here, and the awareness and desire in the US feels like it’s increasing. There’s a long way to go, but it’s encouraging.”
If there’s a silver lining to the unprecedented health and economic disruption of Covid-19, maybe we will look back at this as the moment in history when all of us—whether in industry, the government, or the public—set the world on a more sustainable path for our children and grandchildren.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.0