Redesigning sustainability for a pandemic world

Huge conducted proprietary research and consulted internal experts to map out five opportunities.

As we kicked off the New Year, 2020 was shaping up to be a pivotal moment for the global sustainability movement. The world’s most valuable companies were planning to go carbon negative, renewable energy had achieved competitive pricing, and heck, Greta Thunberg had just been named Time’s Person of the Year. There was a glimmer of hope that humanity could get over fast fashion and internal combustion soon enough to prevent a global catastrophe. But just a few months later, the climate crisis has been demoted to… you know, that other global catastrophe.

To scientists, the viral pandemic and carbon emissions have some commonalities. They are microscopic threats with societal impacts, both of which can be modeled as functions of chemistry and biology. The actions we’ve taken in the short-term to physically distance ourselves may give the planet a moment to catch its breath. But despite these connections, and the magnitude of the response each demands, these two crises play out very differently in consumer psychology and behaviors. In short, your pandemic shopping list won’t help us solve for the climate crisis. And because of this, it’s not enough for consumers just to consume differently -- designers will need to design differently for sustainability to adapt to a pandemic world.

Huge conducted proprietary research and consulted our internal experts to map out five opportunities:

  1. Plastic. In just a few weeks, the pandemic drove a 23 percent drop in consumer attention to sustainability in the beverage category, along with a drop in self-reported recycling behaviors at home. The better solution is to replace single-use beverage containers entirely, and to update the Sodastream model of home carbonation and flavoring to enable digital sharing of recipes, and crafting of one’s own ingredients.
  2. Packaging. As Amazon.com knows well, 26 percent of households report a higher level of ordering of non-food items for shipping and delivery, even as we’re less likely to be recycling (see above). The solution could be more "functional" packaging which can be re-used, in potentially brand-reinforcing ways. While not exactly new ideas, there’s a ton of untapped potential for brands to provide "recipes" for secondary use. Toilet paper rolls instead of packing peanuts, anyone?
  3. Food. Half of Americans report cooking more due to home confinement, and 29 percent have taken steps to reduce their food waste, which is one of the largest single contributors to households’ carbon footprints. But one casualty of non-essential business shut-downs and slashed municipal budgets will be composting programs. In the United States, where 40 percent of food is wasted, there is low adoption of small scale composting. With millions of Americans  (16 percent) deciding to plan or start a garden due to the pandemic, now is a great time for smartly-designed, compact solutions. Let’s redesign the counter-top garden to address the food waste problem, too.
  4. Extended use. Even as job losses cause economic stress, one place we’re not going is thrift shops, with 21 percent of us saying we’ve decreased our purchase of used items. Instead, 27 percent of Americans report the re-use of items which we would otherwise have thrown out. But in order to extend the life of durable goods or electronics, they need to be easier to fix. The Right to Repair movement is pushing for more empowerment of consumers and trades, but designers can help by creating products which are modular and easily taken apart and reassembled, perhaps with components which can be 3D printed or replaced at home.
  5. Retail re-fill. One sad casualty of the pandemic are incentives for using refillable cups, which now can’t be used at all. But just as merchants offer "contactless" pick-up and delivery options, this is a design challenge waiting to be solved. As 20 percent of Americans report the increased consumption of single-use items, let’s rethink retail "hand-offs" for the pandemic age, with technology or materials which minimize risk while reducing waste.

As designers look for ways they can help people and businesses adapt to the new realities of life in a pandemic, we don’t have to abandon our sustainability objectives. We can, in fact, help consumers change their behaviors in ways which protect our families and communities while also respecting the planet we’ll all still be on when we emerge.
(Source: Huge Proprietary Research, Waves 3 & 4 of "Sustainability Journey Study" Q1 / Q2 2020, n=1,326.)

Michael Horn is the chief data officer of global experience agency Huge. 

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