Before COVID-19, sustainability was trendy.
Many studies found the majority of consumers in Australia and around the world preferred to buy sustainable, green or ethical products from responsible businesses (or, at least, they said they did).
Climate protests and apocalyptic bushfires further drove concern for the environment in 2019 and early-2020. Businesses large and small were looking to tap into that sentiment by making their products seem a little greener.
When the pandemic struck, many were concerned that the momentum would be lost, that businesses would wind back their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs to look after the bottom line and that consumers would similarly put cost ahead of cause.
But while attention shifted in 2020, customers’ expectations have not reduced.
There are many signs that COVID-19 has in fact embedded social responsibility, environmental awareness and expectations of businesses even deeper in our cultural values.
During the first Melbourne lockdown, in the midst of the panic-buying and shortages, a ‘food library’ showed up in the little park on my street. “Take what you need, give what you can”, it says.
Perhaps you’ve seen one too. These street pantries popped up on neighbourhood streets across Australia.
Meanwhile, the Kindness Pandemic Facebook group took over as my favourite news source, featuring stories of people looking out for each other and going out of their way to do good.
Though everyone had things a bit tough in 2020, we were all aware there were others worse off.
Both the pandemic and the lockdown drove people to reconnect with their local communities and lend a hand to those in need.
Australia is lucky, we have always put ‘mateship’ high on our values, but across the western world, individualist mentalities have been forced to shift to more collectivist.
With the exception of a few ‘Karens’, we put the good of the whole ahead of our own selfish needs.
The pandemic also put on display the inequality and injustices of our society — from labour exploitation and insecure work in some sectors, to reliance on underpaid, unprotected food producers, supermarket workers, delivery people, teachers and health and aged care workers.
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Many people have become increasingly conscious of the vulnerable and marginalised, and motivated to support social causes.
Another major shift, as we were stuck in our homes, was that people started craving nature.
Visits to parks increased by 12% across Melbourne under stage four restrictions. As soon as the 5km radius was lifted, we went en masse down to the coast, up to the mountains, and filled up every spare campsite.
Real estate agents saw a huge increase in people looking for a ‘tree-change’, moving away from the city now that working remotely has become accepted. This desire for connection with nature will continue driving more people to want to protect our natural places and the broader environment.
These values are showing up in our buying behaviour. Conscious consumerism, or ‘voting with your dollar’, was already growing steadily.
Throughout 2020, we saw even more follow-through on supporting local retail, local farmers markets, and asking for recommendations online of where to find ethical, organic, socially responsible versions of any product they need.
People are looking for any way they can exert control among the disruption. We want to feel we can make some difference, even if it’s while buying something we wanted anyway.
Fast-fashion is too guilt-ridden for many to enjoy anymore, so conscious consumption is the new retail therapy.
Money remains tighter for many right now. So if they are going to spend it, they want to make sure it has an extra impact.
People don’t just want to buy a product, they want a double-whammy for their money, an ROI on their purchase. They want to buy the feeling that they are helping in a small way.
In June, in the midst of global lockdowns, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that while price was top-of-mind for many feeling the squeeze, trust was a close second — 64% vs 53%, in fact).
The barometer has shown we’ve been in a trust pandemic for many years now, with global trust in just about every sector of society, including both private and public institutions, on a steep downward slope.
As we feel more vulnerable, we are looking for brands we can trust to stand up and do the right thing for their community.
Your commitment to society will become your biggest competitive advantage.
A new era of CSR
CSR has gotten a bad reputation. Too many companies have used it to whitewash, or greenwash, over inherently unsustainable business models with pretty donations, volunteering days and platitudes of ‘caring for the environment’.
Consumers have gotten smart, and demand more than these surface-level approaches.
Doing less harm is a minimum. Like not throwing your rubbish on the ground, this expectation is well ingrained into consumers’ values.
With the increased transparency and speed of sharing that social media have brought, it is very difficult for any brand to get away with irresponsible, damaging actions. (Rio Tinto’s Juukan Gorge destruction is just one recent example.)
Now the expectation has moved to doing more good, and fundamentally contributing to improving the world we live in.
The Edelman Trust Barometer found that 80% of consumers want the brands they buy from to solve society’s problems.
Many of the big brands are beginning to listen, going beyond just carbon-neutral to climate-positive, actively taking more carbon out of the atmosphere than they produce.
Others are going beyond just reducing waste to establishing closed loops and moving toward a circular economy.
Many others are driving social change through public advocacy, creating employment and training for marginalised people, or addressing key needs of the vulnerable.
Here is a fantastic list of ways brands stepped up during the coronavirus crisis.
This is a major shift, and a new era for CSR.
Last year, Business Roundtable issued a statement signed by 181 CEOs which stated creating shareholder value is no longer the sole purpose of a corporation.
Similarly, Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock, said in his annual letter to CEOs that “a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders”.
Time for change
Far from a distraction or a cost to your business, sustainability and CSR are your biggest opportunity right now to attract the new post-COVID-19 consumer and recover from the pandemic.
Your customers are looking for you to step up. To contribute to making this upside-down world just a little bit better.
They want you to do your part in addressing climate change, cleaning up plastic waste, addressing inequality, supporting the local economy or whatever aligns with your passion and your unique influence.
You don’t have to do it all, just what you can. This should be your priority investment in 2021, and it will pay dividends in customer and employee loyalty.
At the start of last year, Forbes said “2020 will be the start of a “decisive decade” for corporate social responsibility”.
Though they didn’t see COVID coming, I think they’re no less right.