Disruption. When it happens at the level we saw during the height of the pandemic, it is uncomfortable, frightening, and leaves a lasting imprint on human brains. Environmentally speaking, this rattling of our collective minds could not come too soon. Pre-Covid, warning lights were already blinking red on an imminent climate crisis. A 2019 emissions report, for instance, showed a world, not on the brink of catastrophic global warming but creeping past it, even after implementing the changes from The Paris Accord.
The staggering number of dead across the globe dramatically overshadows the positive environmental impact of Covid19. But, it is hard not to celebrate that, in many ways, the planet fared pretty well during the freshman year of the pandemic. In 2020, for the first time in years, LA saw a smog-free skyline as commutes came grinding to a halt. More notably, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell by 5.4% worldwide and 10 percent in the US.
Sadly driving behaviors that led to this reduction have mostly or partially resumed with workers back on site.
"Greenhouse gas emissions appear to have rebounded faster than GDP in 2021, bouncing back 6.2%." -The Rhodium Group
In the short term, regression to the mean and going back to business as usual are a given, so this was to be expected. While understandably disheartening, there is still reason for hope for long-term environmental behavior change. It appears that in response to the pandemic, consumer behaviors have shifted towards normalizing sustainability. But why? What switch did the pandemic flip in our heads as we collectively "sheltered in place?" The answer may lie in the aforementioned operative word--collectively.
"Some 70% of survey participants said they were more aware now than before COVID-19 that human activity threatens the climate and that degradation of the environment, in turn, threatens humans. And three-quarters of respondents said environmental issues are as concerning as—or more concerning than—health issues." -BCG
The pandemic and climate disruption are not so different for people psychologically. This partially explains why they were so readily linked in people's minds. They are both collective traumas that invoke almost identical responses in our brains--crisis-related behavior. In turbulent times, be they flooding or flu, humans move towards being more considerate of the well-being of society as a whole rather than just ourselves. We think globally rather than locally, priming the pump with amity in preparation to pull out our go-to evolutionary trick--cooperation. Environmental psychologists and evolutionary biologists have known this for some time.
"While most of us are not at immediate risk of personal harm [from either crisis], we're being asked to change our behaviors not primarily to protect ourselves but in order to protect everyone else," Susan Clayton, Ph.D., a social and environmental psychologist at The College of Wooster in Ohio
Climate hazards, up fivefold since 1950, were already traumatizing the world psyche in 2019. So when the cascade of Covid-related disruptions appeared, bringing near-identical repercussions to social and economic systems, it isn't surprising our ecological worldviews expanded. Our response, in kind, was to shift our perspectives outward. This freshly empathetic worldview, paired with a sudden understanding of global supply chains, tempered by pronounced shortages, wrought a new kind of ecologically-evolved consumer: the "eco-consumer." Will these shifts toward renewed stewardship of the earth be long-term? TBD, But the optimist in us says yes--and so does the opportunist.
A 2020 global survey by management consultancy firm Accenture noted a "dramatic" evolution of consumerism. 60-percent of respondents reported making more environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical purchases since the start of the pandemic. More promisingly, nine out of 10 of that percentage said they were likely to continue doing so. It seems that no work and no play made "Johnny" an ecologically considerate, socially conscious, circular-minded boy.
Psychologically speaking, old self-centered habits were uprooted, and new world-wise behaviors were sown in their stead. It also appears that these convicted consumers will be just as demanding of their brands. The opportunity here for product designers and developers is to start a conversation about sustainability with these new converts. They are actively forming new shopping habits and are more committed than ever before to products and brands whose environmental ethics mirror their own.
The current consumer sentiment on eco-friendly products reaches into numerous disciplines. For product designers, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. Those product design firms already committed to sustainable, circular product design will need to double down: explore new materials, reinvent supply chains, and set sustainability as the default protocol. For those who aren't--now is probably a good time to pivot or be prepared to accept the lamb's share of business. For everyone, under any part of the product design umbrella ( brand development, manufacturing, CPG), right now is the time to nab market share. New consumer habits are being built. End-users are more interested than ever before in reasonably more expensive, markedly more durable, sustainable goods. To the newly pragmatic consumers, the designers that embrace, boast, and even insist on a circular approach will likely delight them and be rewarded with loyalty, profitability, and that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with saving the planet.
At Speck Design we pride ouselves in our environmentally ethical product design services. If you are looking to bring a sustainable or circular product into the market, reach out to us for a consult, we would love to help.