With the coronavirus pandemic forcing us all to re-evaluate our day-to-day lives and priorities, the era of conscious consumption has well and truly begun.
How the corona crisis impacted consumption
In the past year, our view of the world has changed. The corona crisis turned our lives upside down as country after country moved into lockdown. What was normal before was not normal any more, especially for those who caught the virus. Think of meeting family and friends, think of a stroll in the city, or think of travelling. As we became locked down, we were forced to slow down. We had to think about what is important in life – health and wellbeing on all levels, family and friends. We were confronted with many questions we did not consider when we were caught up in our daily routines. We also realised that, in addition to being places to live, our homes had to accommodate all aspects of our lives, from work and education to entertaining ourselves and maintaining physical and mental fitness.
Zooming out from the personal perspective, the biggest challenge of the crisis has been to balance health risks and wealth risks. Focusing on the former while not losing sight of the latter required massive support and stimulus packages put together by politicians and policymakers all over the world. Thanks to these packages, consumption in most countries has recovered very swiftly. According to local statistical offices, for seven out of ten of the world’s largest developed and developing countries, consumption levels were higher before the most recent lockdowns than they had been a year before. While this shows the strength of worldwide consumer society, it does not mean consumption-as-usual any more. Digging deeper into the data, there is a lot of evidence that consumption patterns and preferences are changing faster than ever before. The world’s consumers are definitely becoming more conscious.
This is not a new trend, but, as we have seen with trends in other areas of our lives, it has clearly accelerated during the corona crisis.
What is conscious consumption?
Whether or not we consider ourselves conscious consumers can be very subjective. For some, it may actually mean cutting back on consumption. For others, it may simply mean being much more aware of the consequences their consumption has. In any case, the focus is on the societal and environmental footprint of our lifestyles. The question is not so much about what we want or what we need, but whether we can afford it from a societal and environmental point of view. Conscious consumption touches almost all areas of everyday life: our food and our fashion, the way we commute, and the way we travel. The question is what impact we make.
How we eat is how we live
We care much more about food today than we did in the past, and its prominence in our lives has undoubtedly risen. Think of the variety of restaurants in our cities, the food bloggers online, and what we know about items of food. We are aware of the adverse human health effects of processed food, and we care about animal welfare, even if we are not vegetarian or vegan. We are concerned about the environmental footprint of our food, ranging from excessive water usage in fruit and vegetable production to the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock industry.
Food is a lot about habits. Changing our eating habits is a question of both our willingness and our ability to do so. Willingness relates to individual and social values. Do I want to eat differently? Do I want to support my local farmer? Does society recognise the benefits of locally and organically produced food? Does it realise the issues related to eating too much meat? Does it care about the environment and the animals? Ability relates to prosperity. Do I have the financial flexibility to spend more money on the more expensive, locally and organically produced food?
The share of organic food sales in a country provides a good gauge of how conscious the consumers are about what they eat. Organic food covers both the willingness aspect, as these consumers care about how their food is produced, as well as the ability aspect, as they are paying more than for non-organic food. Unsurprisingly, the share of organic food is the highest in prosperous developed countries, reaching up to 10 per cent in some. Growth in organic food sales in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States has outpaced growth of total food sales by a factor of 10 since the beginning of the century. The crisis provided another big boost to this trend, according to local organic associations.
However, organic food is not just a demand-driven story. Statistics show that prices of organic milk and meat are not just higher but also less volatile, thereby providing a higher and more stable income for the producers.
Organic food is thus a win-win story for producers and consumers, leaving a lot of room for growth.
From fast fashion to slow fashion
The world of fashion tends to be fast and flashy. Our insatiable demand for the newest styles has led to the rise of fast fashion, a practice that sees producers churning out a high number of collections every year from cheaper materials and cheaper labour. This inevitably has significant adverse implications for quality and tends to result in clothes that look faded, shapeless, or shabby after a few washes. The flip side of this high churn-out is excessive waste. Studies show that we use only 20 to 30 per cent of the clothes in our wardrobes, each of which is worn a mere seven times on average before it is ignored or disposed of.
Fast fashion comes with an ever increasing environmental footprint. A huge amount of water is needed for the manufacturing of the nearly 80 billion garments produced annually. Nearly 15,000 litres of water are required to produce one kilogram of cotton, which is roughly equivalent to the weight of a shirt and a pair of jeans. In addition, garment production is also responsible for water pollution due to the amount of toxic chemicals being discharged into drains, rivers, and lakes. Next to its environmental impact, the industry is often associated with poor working conditions. Garment workers in developing countries hit the headlines because of very low wages and safety issues. That said, the rise of the garment industries has lifted many of them out of poverty.
In a world of fast fashion, we are spoiled for choice. Nevertheless, some form of change has been slowly gathering pace within the fashion industry, supported by growing consumer awareness of the industry’s negative impact on our animals, people, and planet. Labelled ‘slow fashion’, this movement seeks to encourage fewer purchases of garments and footwear, made of higher-quality, sustainable and locally sourced materials.
Such an approach inevitably slows down the overall pace of shopping but enhances the consumers’ connection with fashion into one where ethics and sustainability matter as much as seasons and styles. While the forced slowdown of the industry during the corona crisis may have sped up the slow fashion trend, the transition of the industry is still in its infancy.
While the forced slowdown of the industry during the corona crisis may have sped up the slow fashion trend, the transition of the industry is still in its infancy.
New ways of getting around
There are not many things as important as mobility. It connects home and work, while also bringing our global economy’s supply chains to life. Our mobility needs very much depend on our living conditions, in particular if we live in a city or in the countryside. In a city we can rely on public transportation, while in the countryside we often have no other option than using our cars. The flip side is the negative side effects of mobility, such as the emissions and pollution from cars, trucks, and planes.
The emergence of the plug-in car offers a calmer and cleaner alternative to conventional cars. Their electric motor is much more efficient than the combustion engine and their smaller carbon footprint is getting even smaller if clean energy is used for charging. Environmental and societal concerns related to the manufacturing of their batteries are hitting the headlines but need to be put into perspective. In particular, they need to be balanced with comparable issues in oil-producing countries. The corona crisis fast-forwarded the shift towards plug-in cars thanks to state stimulus measures, including dedicated support for cleaner mobility. Add in the growing number of more affordable, long-range, and clean electric cars over the next few years, and this decade will see the era of electric mobility truly take off.
The corona crisis has also altered how people are getting around in cities. Crowded public transportation has come under scrutiny because of potentially higher infection risks, prompting some to prefer their cars while others discovered cycling. Some of the world’s cities witnessed a bike boom last summer, as commuters were embracing cycling as a cleaner and healthier way of getting around. How about after the crisis? The share of cyclists is likely to stay higher, even though some will switch back to public transportation – as will some of the drivers.
Higher up, we had fewer planes in the skies during the crisis and this should remain the case, at least as far as business travel is concerned.
For private travel, the desire to see the world and explore new places may be too strong a factor to keep people grounded.
How to be a more conscious consumer?
Becoming a conscious consumer requires an awareness of the impact our consumption has on the environment and society. This awareness can be used to single out specific steps to choose more carefully. For food, it would mean reducing the consumption of beef and dairy because of their greenhouse gas emissions. For fashion, it would be all about buying less and choosing high quality over low quality garments. And for mobility, it would be about reducing your radius and curbing your emissions by switching to greener options such as electric cars, bicycles, or public transportation. Does this sound like an ascetic lifestyle? It should not, as consumption will remain a reward and this reward, for society as a whole, may ultimately be bigger if we all consume more consciously.
Global Wealth and Lifestyle Report 2021
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