The Conscious Consumer

As the COVID-19 pandemic is flooding our news feeds and Greta Thunberg’s sailing boat and climate protesters hardly get any attention anymore, we might wonder whether all the multinationals’ sustainability programs and innovations are being redirected to the waste bin – no pun intended …

It’s true that during this corona crisis and the recession that will undoubtedly follow, budgets might get frozen or cut. Corporate strategies will have to deal with recovery, survival and getting back to normal.

But let’s be honest, ‘normal’ wasn’t working before COVID-19 started to take the planet hostage. Earth Overshoot Day (the day we have used up all the planet’s resources and start destroying our planet) comes a few days earlier year after year. Despite millions of people globally participating in climate strikes and even with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to make the world a better place, mankind collectively has not yet cracked the code of sustainable living and producing.

From eco-warriors to eco-worriers

As a Gen Xer myself, you won’t hear me say things like “COVID-19 is earth’s revenge for our abuse”; but the forced lockdown almost immediately halved NO2 emissions in major European cities. Even the most skeptical climate-change disbeliever is witnessing the immediate impact of what is happening today. It can be expected that the global 2020 corona crisis will awaken the remaining minority of not-so-woke consumers. People will definitely pay more attention to their health for years to come.

Trends like ‘flipside shopping’ (i.e. obsessively checking the back of packaging for provenance and artificial additives) will continue to grow. Apps such as Yuka and Think Dirty, allowing users to separate the wheat from the chaff by just scanning bar codes on products, already have millions of users. Even committed red-meat lovers might question their own consumption habits; maybe less so for animal-welfare reasons or to decrease their carbon footprint and water usage like vegans and veggies, but rather for their personal health. Just like SARS and MERS, COVID-19 and 75% of all human infections are transmitted by animals.

As a result of (temporary) unemployment and recession, consumers might think twice before throwing away leftovers or buying something nice, yet unnecessary. Supporting local farmers and communities, demanding fair wages for everyone, and restoring and replenishing natural resources, will climb higher than ever before on the agenda of citizens around the globe. Brands will only maintain their relevance and license to operate when they show through social and sustainable actions that they understand the post-corona needs of their customer base.

Start making sense

In a global InSites Consulting study realized before COVID-19, 8 out of 10 consumers found sustainability important to very important. The key issues companies and brands should address: recycling, reducing packaging (especially single-use plastic), reducing CO2 emissions, preserving and restoring biospheres, and abstaining from using artificial and chemical ingredients in production. The youngest part of the sample – Generation Z – puts more emphasis on fair wages, gender and race equality, and LGBT+ rights. The number of meat-avoiding consumers in this generation is also impressively higher than in the older groups. 

Sustainability as we knew it before COVID-19 – maximizing profits while doing less harm to planet and people – will have to be replaced by climate-plus or net-positive thinking. Companies like Unilever, Dell, Carlsberg, H&M and IKEA are pushing themselves and their suppliers to go for carbon positivity by 2030 or 2040. But the clock is ticking – the famous Doomsday Clock was set at a record 100 seconds to midnight early this year just before corona hit the world. Merely offsetting CO2 emissions won’t be enough. Companies and competitor brands will have to re-think systems and businesses, and collaborate to restore and replenish what we have lost. Several promising attempts are already being made, such as the Loop project, where TerraCycle, UPS, several retailers and 25 FMCG multinationals are trying to introduce circular systems. But consumers will ask for more affordable and more convenient solutions.

Trust will be one of the main KPIs in the new sustainable era, with only 41% of consumers trusting brands that make sustainability claims, and 7 out of 10 asking for more transparent and reliable information. Kering, the holding owning luxury brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, surprisingly beats H&M and Adidas in The Global 100, the Corporate Knights’ ranking of most sustainable companies. The not-so-secret recipe: measuring and communicating about carbon emissions, water consumption, pollution and waste production along the entire supply chain.

Dairy alternative Oatly (oatbased products), which suddenly experienced a surge in sales as people were stocking food products with longer expiry dates to survive lockdowns, prints each product’s carbon footprint on the front of its pack. The brand’s competitive edge and marketing campaigns are built around being a sustainable vegan and cruelty-free alternative to dairy.

Voting with the wallet

If sustainability is not a differentiator for your brand, at least it is a defensive shield. One in five consumers has ever ‘buycotted’ a brand because it was not sustainable (27% of Gen Z).

Sustainability is or was not a hype: it will provide brands with a license to operate. In order to stay relevant and create talkability while price elasticity is diminishing, companies should continue investing in more sustainable solutions. Half of the consumers in our research believe that sustainable brands are more up-to-date, and 41% think they offer a better quality. Unilever’s purpose-led brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business.

I’m convinced that in post-corona times, brands that understand consumers’ needs, and know how to build their purpose and social missions on those frictions, will thrive.

As published on Research World on Wed Apr 22, 2020.

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