Today marks the 50th year of Earth Day.  None of the previous 49 Earth Days have taken place in anything like the world we are experiencing today.

It’s difficult to think that it was only seven weeks ago, on the 2nd of March, that Scotland reported its first case of coronavirus.

Our world has changed dramatically in that short period.  Our assumptions about what is ‘normal’ in our daily lives have fundamentally changed.  Many of our personal, family, community and organisational routines have been dramatically altered to help us get through this emergency.

This unprecedented scale of change has been achieved quickly and with clear purpose: to tackle a public health emergency and minimise, as far as we can, the awful human tragedy and suffering brought on by the coronavirus.


As we make this community effort, there is one old assumption which we must absolutely not return to.  This is the long-held and outdated thought that looking after the environment is in conflict with economic success.

Scotland has already made strong progress in discarding this old mindset with a track record, for example, in reducing carbon emissions by creating the new industries of tomorrow such as renewable energy.  Scotland, along with Iceland and New Zealand, established the Wellbeing Economy Governments Initiative in 2018.  It is these types of innovation that will help us create vibrant economies that will serve our human needs and are in sync with what our one and only earth can provide.

Long-term vision

As Scotland’s environmental watchdog, we have kept this long-term vision in mind as we work out how to play our own specific role in the national effort to tackle the current public health emergency.

We have set our aim as making our “best contribution to helping the nation get through this public health emergency in a way that protects and improves Scotland’s environment”.


What does this mean for how we do our job?  

The Scottish Government has designated 13 critical national infrastructure sectors vital to the functioning of society during this emergency. At SEPA, we regulate the environmental impact of many of these sectors.  We are working closely with these sectors to help this national focus on food security, the provision of clean water and the maintenance of critical infrastructure and the support services on which we all rely.

We know that all businesses we regulate are trying to operate in extraordinary circumstances.  We know they are trying to look after the health of their own workforces.  We know they may have supply-chain and other challenges.

On 6th April, we published our regulatory philosophy for this next period, a new Coronavirus website, information and a series of ‘regulatory positions’ which support specific sectors over the period ahead.  We’ll add more over the coming weeks. 

Do the right thing

We said that where regulated businesses are unable to fully meet their compliance obligations, they should prioritise conditions which directly protect the environment over those of an administrative nature.  They should contact SEPA, work closely with us and document the choices and actions they take.

We’ve asked Scottish businesses to adapt responsibly and we expect the majority will.  Our message has been clear: if you try to do the right thing in this next period, you will find a helpful and supportive regulator.  If you deliberately do the wrong thing while the rest of Scottish society pulls together, you’ll get the uncompromising regulator your behaviour deserves.

This approach of supporting progressive business behaviour and punishing poor business behaviour has been central to our regulatory strategy: One Planet Prosperity.   The challenge of how we help Scottish businesses and communities thrive within the resources that our one planet provides is more important now than ever.

HeraldScotland: THAT’S THE SPIRIT: The North British Distillery, is among a group of drinks companies who are supplying high strength alcohol for hand sanitisers.THAT’S THE SPIRIT: The North British Distillery, is among a group of drinks companies who are supplying high strength alcohol for hand sanitisers.


In the current period, we’re all looking at how companies are responding.  We’re seeing the very best in innovation, as companies such as North British Distillery in Edinburgh are supplying high strength alcohol to produce hand sanitiser.  International spirits firm Edrington, behind names like The Macallan, Highland Park, The Glenrothes and The Famous Grouse blended Scotch is supporting Glasgow City Council’s production of sanitiser for care homes and front-line staff, such as waste and recycling workers, through ongoing donations of high strength alcohol from North British. Last week Edrington also donated hand sanitiser to The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre. 

Similar to most Scottish employers still able to operate, we have had to adapt in order to protect our workforce and help reduce the spread of the virus. We will continue to use a variety of means of checking and assessing compliance, including phone calls, issuing written advice, remotely managed technologies such as drones, targeted site and field visits, and other forms of intelligence gathering. 

Even some businesses which, unfortunately, have had to, or are considering, pausing production are already opening discussions with us about how they might reduce environmental impact when they restart their economic activity.

People, planet and profit

In 1994, business sustainability leader John Elkington coined the phrase the ‘triple bottom line’ of people, planet and profit.  Despite it entering the business lexicon, twenty-five years later Elkington wrote an article in Harvard Business Review announcing a ‘product recall’ of his triple bottom line concept. 

The concept had become popular.  It had helped bring environmental and social issues into boardroom deliberations.  It sparked a series of actions by many businesses to improve their environmental performance and contribute to enhanced social outcomes.

Elkington had hoped it would help fundamentally change our economies.  It helped us step forward, but not jump ahead.  It led to improvements, but not transformation.  Elkington had that rare vision to call time on an idea that had been successful, but needed replacing by something new.


Last year, Elkington and his team at Volans launched its ‘Tomorrow’s Capitalism’ inquiry.  Alongside global companies such as Unilever, Aviva Investors, Covestro and The Body Shop, SEPA is participating as the only regulatory agency invited to join the project.  We are bringing some of Scotland’s innovation into the project and learning with others as we debate and, importantly, test practical ways of creating the future economy and society that will serve us all well.

Last week, the Scottish Government announced an Economic Recovery Action Group.  In doing so, the First Minster said “its role will be to advise government on actions to support economic recovery.  And crucially it will consider how these actions can contribute to our aim of building a fairer, and a greener, and a more equal society as well.”  SEPA will contribute our ideas from our One Planet Prosperity work with our partners in Scotland and from our participation in Volans’ Tomorrow’s Capitalism inquiry.

As we take a moment to reflect on this 50th Earth Day, it’s clear that the next period can’t be an alibi for inaction.  The future is not what it was going to be.  As Scotland’s environmental regulator, we will maintain our twin focus: regulating in a way that helps Scotland get through this public health emergency and regulating in a way that helps builds an even better, more inclusive and sustainable Scotland.