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Has the cost-of-living crisis stripped away our planet-friendly pandemic behaviours?

The cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic are having very different impacts on our attitudes to sustainability.

During the pandemic we noticed consumers feeling more connected to others, more mindful of the inter-relationship of their lives with those around them. Despite the seemingly dire situation, we found that consumers shifted up Maslow's hierarchy of needs towards belonging, love and self-actualization (a desire to be the best you can be). We saw this in people taking up new hobbies, building new skills and doing more for those around them. We also saw it in greater traction and interest in sustainability.

Our world felt fragile, and we felt empowered to care for it.

Jane’s* comment during a Customer Closeness event for a supermarket retailer was typical, “I’m definitely more worried about packaging. I’m buying more local to support those around me and I’m trying to be more purposeful about what I buy and where I buy from.” This was backed up by quantitative data with four out of five UK consumers adopting more sustainable lifestyle choices during the COVID-19 pandemic*.

With the cost-of-living crisis, we are seeing a retrenching into safety and physiological needs – with a refocus on ‘me and mine’. There is less room in people's hearts or wallets for sustainable choices.

We saw a stark example of this in a recent Customer Closeness event, when we asked customers; “If all energy prices were equal (which they are likely to be for a while), would you switch supplier for a more sustainable energy tariff?” The whole group of customers said NO.

Even more telling was that one of the respondents, let's call him John*, said “Previously I would have changed to a sustainable tariff if there was little difference in costs, but not now.”

We are finding that consumers are increasingly gripped by uncertainty; politically, economically and in their everyday life. It is making them wary of making changes - even ones that will have a positive impact.

Again, we see this backed by quantitative data. A recent YouGov study revealed that consumers would temporarily support increasing coal power to avoid blackouts (54%) and to reduce energy bills (51%) this winter.

The focus for many has firmly shifted down Maslow's hierarchy of needs towards survival.

However, there is some hope! In other Closeness sessions, we are hearing about a focus on energy saving via activities such as home insulation and installation of solar panels (two initiatives that have had little traction until now) as well as a focus on reduction in waste especially food and fashion (with second hand and recycling becoming more mainstream).

So, if companies want customers to make sustainable choices during the cost-of-living crisis they need to make sustainable choices simple and economically smart for them as individuals – appealing to ‘me and mine’ as we can’t rely on a desire to just ‘be better’.

*Deloitte’s Sustainable Consumer research

**Names changed for confidentiality


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