Welcome to the age where less is more

by Ben Peacock


Everything was going so well. Survey after survey was showing people’s concern for the environment was finally translating to sales of products that promised to help do something about it.

Recycled rubber sneakers, carbon neutral phone plans, cafes run by street kids…sustainability was seeing a boom the likes it had never seen before. The TV show, War on Waste had created a real war on waste. People who previously wouldn’t have recognised a Keep Cup if it had hit then in the cappuccino were queueing up to help them sell out.  

As Australia’s first and foremost sustainability agency, it was a boom we had waited a long time for. But then – COVID hit. And, like everyone else, we wondered what was going to happen.

Would people keep caring about these things or would sustainability go back out the door as people rushed to stock the shed with the cheapest toilet paper money can buy? In the quiet anonymity of online shopping, would the lure of a short term bargain overturn the desire to be – or at least be seen to be – a good human? Was this the end of the sustainability boom we had spent over a dozen years working so hard to create?  

For a while, it looked that way. Work was put on hold. Jobkeeper was applied for. The agency website was (finally) redone as we sat in the same holding pattern as everyone else in town.

Then… it happened.

The inbox started to ‘bing’ again. Jobs that were on hold were not just off hold, but urgent. Brands we would never have expected a call from were on the phone. Yes, marketing budgets had been told to take a pause, but for the smart brands and companies, sustainability – it seemed – was still priority number one.

As a mad scientist once said, why is it so? 

For one, it seems that COVID, in all its global upheaval, has been seen for what it is… a dress rehearsal for a far greater upheaval on the horizon.

If COVID is a very bad year, then climate change is a very bad rest-of-your-life, and the life of pretty much every generation to come.

People get this, and they don’t like it. The pandemic has given us a window into how badly humans act when something as simple as toilet paper is in low supply – what if ecosystem collapse led every supermarket shelf to be equally empty? If we keep going polluting our air like we do, that’s exactly what is predicted to happen somewhere around the year 2070. Sure, I’ll be eating worms by then, but those of us who care about our kids don’t want to see it happen to them, so we’re voting with our wallets like never before to stop it happening.

For two, we’ve realised the value of local. Sure, cheap imports cost less in cash, but they cost the country in employment. In the COVID downturn, one of the most wonderful things we saw was the re-rise of local – people going out of their way to support the local shop, cafe or restaurant. People choosing Australian and hoping others would too, so we all reap the rewards.

And three, there’s a growing realisation that best things in life aren’t things. Hands up who’s enjoyed time with their partner, family or dog in a big way over the last six months, and never wants to give that up again? How about those of us who suddenly realised the value of our local park to escape our home office, to exercise or just breathe?

To my mind, these are the three big changes COVID has brought and they aren’t going away. So what opportunity does this offer marketers?

First, if your product or service hasn’t considered its social and environmental impact and started on a path to not just doing less bad, but doing more good – then you’re missing the next big consumer trend. In fact, it’s well and truly already here, it’s just not quite fully mainstream. Yet.

Second, if you can do what you do in a way that benefits local community or just the country, why wouldn’t you? It’s a great story and one people want to hear a lot more about from the brands they buy from.

And finally, ask yourself: if your goal is just to sell stuff for stuff’s sake, does your business really have a future? Or is it time to think about offering something that gives people less stuff but more health, wellbeing or connection?

If we all think like this, then 2021 could turn a year to forget into a decade to truly remember – for the world, and the wallets of the people who help make it just a little bit better everyday.

Ben Peacock, Founder

Article originally published in the Barrett Sales Trends Report 2021.

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