Consumerism, climate and coronavirus

Editor Jennifer Horn on the fundamental consumer shifts that are only just beginning.

Jennifer HornThis originally appeared in the May/June issue of strategy.

After weeks of going back-to-the-basics, I’m not completely convinced we’ll emerge from our sanitized homes unchanged. That’s not to say everyone will become rewilders and survivalists; although it wouldn’t hurt to know how to build a fire, or at the very least, sourdough starter. But surely the imposed moratorium on non-essentials will rewire our consumer brains, even by some small degree?

I, for one, can feel the auto-pilot switch turning off and my purchases becoming more measured. Some of my self-discoveries during quarantine include: not needing more than five blouses and, sometimes, a pair of sweatpants; realizing it is possible to eat every morsel of food in the fridge; and that my stairwell acts as a cost-free (and physical distancing appropriate) gym alternative.

Consumerism as we know it has been put on pause. We’ll eventually return to our old shopping ways, but perhaps some will be given a larger grain of thought.

The shift won’t be unfounded. If the experts in our May/June 2020 issue are correct, we could see an acceleration of preexisting consumer trends, such as the desire for brands with an eco bent. If your brand already has a sustainability strategy, you’re in luck. If not, now’s the time to set the purpose agenda.

While Canada was in peak coronavirus, I spoke with the CMO and the chief strategist at McCann in Asia to get a sense of consumer sentiment there as the economy came out of its coma. Prior to COVID, they said, sustainability felt like an issue that was being dealt with by Western countries. Now, even older generation Chinese who tend to be more “traditionally minded” are concerned with the greater good of the world, they told me.

But if you’re not convinced the pandemic will spark deeper societal and environmental action and thought, then perhaps look to Amsterdam. Mid-crisis, the city became the first to adopt the “doughnut” model. Dutch policymakers will encourage the financial success of businesses that adopt similar principles as those that are B Corp certified (with two rings of a doughnut representing climate and social issues intertwined). It no longer relies on GDP as the only marker of economic health. According to Quartz, “in adopting this model, which attempts to balance the needs of people without harming the environment, the city hopes to emerge from the cloud of COVID-19 elbows out, with a new purpose.”

It’s a mighty ballsy and somewhat controversial move, but it just goes to show the kind of fundamental shifts taking place – and we’re not even out of the pandemic woods yet.

In a tribute feature to Unilever as it turns 90, we look at how 28 of the company’s Sustainable Living Brands are growing 68% faster than the rest of its portfolio. Why? Because each one is driven by either boosting Unilever’s social impact or depleting its eco footprint. It’ll be interesting to see those numbers a year from now. Will our experts be right? Will we emerge with stronger values? And, will we ever be able to give up our sweatpants to return to the office?

Stay tuned. At the pace the world moves today, I’m sure we’ll soon find out.