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How has the pandemic changed Environmental attitudes - and how should brands respond?


If you’d asked most people a year ago what the most prominent threat to the human race was then the answer would likely have been linked to environmental threats such as climate change and pollution.


Of course, since then the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a more clear and present danger - but how have perceptions of sustainability and environment have changed as a result of this impactful global event?


Reading the trends…


A logical place to start when seeking to discover shifts in public perception is Google Trends, which can chart changes in internet users searches on the world’s leading search engine. As you can see from the chart above, it is clear that pre-pandemic environmental issues were seeing a great deal of attention which in turn drove public curiosity.

This was actually sustained throughout the first quarter of 2020, but when the true impact of the pandemic hit in Q2 2020 started to fall off - only to regain attention in Q4 2020. My feeling is that this behaviour is connected to the media reporting of the topic and the shifting of attention away from these issues towards the more present issue of the pandemic, and its recovery largely due to the US election returning these environmental concerns to the public eye.


Given the new U.S President’s commitment to environmental action I’d expect this to see a rising trend here over the rest of the year as these topics once again see increased attention.


The times they are a’changing….


Understanding web searches can give us an idea of audiences’ interest but not always their intent, especially when it comes to socio-political issues. In order to really understand these attitudes much richer data is needed and for this task I’ve chosen to use GWI - a digital survey platform which has a number of useful datapoints covering environment and sustainability attitudes and actions.


Before looking at the most recent data I wanted to explore how attitudes changed mid-2020 when the impact of the pandemic was starting to be fully understood by global audiences. The chart above details how important particular behaviours had become by this point in the pandemic, and as you can see suggests a dramatic shift.


It is worth noting here that, of the three behaviours tracked, the need for companies to behave more sustainably is most prominent and that the 16 -24 age group that represents many brands future customers were the group who most actively expected this - something marketers should certainly bear in mind.


The Zeitgeist


Analysis of data from GWI’s recent ‘Zeitgeist’ dataset provides more detail in terms of the specific actions US & UK audiences expect brands and corporates to take.


Most prominent among these are ‘Create products with less packaging’ and ‘Create products with recycled packaging’ which of course relate directly to the consumer experience and as such an aspect that the audience are most likely to notice. Less visible actions which might only be seen in specific media or by reading through companies reports saw less noticeably less demand, although it is worth bearing in mind that these are just as vital for effective sustainability efforts.


Analysis of the sustainability efforts audiences are most likely to take themselves suggests some alignment with the consumer experience too– with ‘Recycle More’ as the most prominent of these.


Given the housebound challenges of the pandemic it is also encouraging to see that ‘Use less energy’ and ‘Reduce food waste’ see prominence here, and I have to wonder if more time at home and a little more headspace to consider their actions has prompted this. With public transport still seen as a potential risk by many, it is not surprising that ‘Use alternatives to driving’ is seeing less enthusiasm – even though purchases of new vehicles are noticeably reduced.


Don’t give up


If the data included here makes one thing clear it is that brands and corporates need to continue to improve their sustainability and environmental efforts since to not do so would put them out of alignment with their consumer audiences.


Furthermore, as we live in constantly shifting and uncertain times audience data is more vital than ever when it comes to pre-empting and planning for inevitable attitudinal and behavioural shifts.


Edward James Bass

Jan 2021


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