The health crisis has altered our perceptions on consumerism, eco-friendliness and wellness - but how will the pandemic impact sustainability and its prevalence in the future?
The full psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is virtually immeasurable. The humanitarian, economic and social effects of the virus would’ve been inconceivable to many in 2019, but today, after more than 18 months living in a health crisis, it seems difficult to imagine life returning to ‘normality.’
COVID-19’s psychological impact has been far reaching, but it’s also served as an opportunity for people to alter their behaviour in a positive way. Evidence suggests that, since the pandemic began, we’ve been more active and more environmentally conscious - indicating that the crisis may pave the way for a greater level of sustainability across society.
Let’s take a deeper look at how COVID-19 has influenced our perception of sustainability and at the permanency of such a significant behavioral change:
Behavioral Changes in The Pandemic
As the pandemic spread around the world, we can see that an immediate impact on sustainability occurred, as more employees ditched their commute in order to work from home and production was interrupted around the world 1.
Fig 1. Above, we can see that the imposition of global lockdowns and sheltering measures led to an immediate impact on global CO2 emissions, with Europe experiencing a 12% fall in cumulative emissions.
However, we can see from daily CO2 emissions charts that in the case of China, the nation in which COVID-19 originated from and thus the fastest to recover from the first wave of the virus, that daily emissions climbed back to their pre-pandemic rates within the first four months of 2020.
This data suggests that the early imposition of lockdown measures had a short term effect on global sustainability efforts, but what about the longer-term behavioral impact of the pandemic? 2
Fig 2. Here, we can see data that supports the notion that our collective behaviors towards nature have altered whilst the pandemic has impacted our mental health, the ecosystem, and the volume of traffic on our roads.
Impressively, we can see that positive attitudes towards nature in the wake of the pandemic have increased exponentially, with greater sentiment recorded in both the US and Europe. This evidence correlates with higher instances of depression among survey respondents in the US, possibly indicating an effort to build links to nature in a bid to counter such negative feelings.
Could COVID-19 be driving individuals towards experiencing negative mental health whilst encouraging them to engage more in nature and build more positive feelings towards sustainability? Let’s explore the psychological reasons why the pandemic may be pushing us to become more sustainable.
The psychological impact of COVID-19 on sustainability
Beth Karlin, climate psychologist and founder of the Transformational Media Lab at the University of California, notes that changing habits and habits of mind, although extremely difficult to implement, “is easiest in times of transition.” 3
According to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology by social psychologists Bas Verplanken and Deborah Roy 4, people who had just moved residencies were more likely to adopt a new sustainable behavior intervention compared to non-movers who received the same intervention.
Similarly, the significant physical and psychological changes brought on by the pandemic presents an opportunity for individuals to reassess their sustainability behavior in terms of travel arrangements, transit, consumerism, choice of energy, volunteering and more.
With this in mind, Karlin claims that the COVID-19 crisis actually represents “one of the greatest natural experiments of our lives.” This is because it can offer us the opportunity to investigate crisis-related behavior and the prospect of behavior change in real time.
We’re already hearing anecdotal evidence of how consumer behavior is changing in the wake of the pandemic. For instance, Ashley Tryner, founder of organic food company New York-based Farmbox Direct, has seen sales climb by more than 30 times its 2019 levels. 5
“Overnight, the company had to shift operating elements to handle growth that would typically come over a few years, and with several million in marketing spend,” Tryner explained.
Data suggests that the US organic products market was forecast to have seen sales rise by 9.5% over 2020 to $252 billion 6, whilst precisely the same percentage increase was also attributed to the UK market, with data from the UK Soil Association indicating a 10-year high. 7
According to a recent MasterCard survey spanning 24 countries, 58% of adults believe that they are more mindful of their impact on the environment, while 85% claimed that they were willing to take personal action to combat climate and sustainability challenges in 2021. 8
Furthermore, 62% of respondents said that it’s now more important than before that companies behave in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way. This could have a significant impact on the way marketing is conducted as we emerge from the pandemic and industries look to swing back into profitability after a difficult month.
For instance, these changing consumer perceptions could make life difficult for the travel industry as carbon footprint reduction comes under increasing scrutiny. Other consumer industries stretching from eyewear to footwear 9 have experienced slower growth and reduced sales 10 in the midst of COVID-19, and we may soon see more sustainability-focused campaigns to recapture the affection of consumers.
Is Society in it for the long-haul?
Although sentiment towards sustainability is high in the midst of the pandemic, how can we be sure that these behavioral changes are here to stay?
There are many behavioral, economic and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that need to be deciphered. These impacts may be a result of the health crisis itself, the initial strategies to limit the spread, or more long term recovery plans.
With this in mind, research is required to help characterize these impacts and to explore the relationships leading to them. Research can also help to inform what the optimal recovery pathway should look like and how it can most effectively promote health - for both individuals and the environment as a whole. 11 12
As the graph above, published by Deloitte shows, consumer sentiment towards brands that responded well to the crisis fell 4% over the space of 10 weeks, decisions to buy more locally-sourced items dropped by 5%, and willingness to pick up items bought online locally to support local stores has also fallen by 5% - however, sentiment towards picking up online items locally has remained the same since the start of the crisis.
This evidence points towards a gradual but evident decline in sentiment as the pandemic progresses and old habits reemerge.
Hayden Wood, CEO of energy company Bulb, claimed that “the challenge for 2021 will be to ensure that support for climate-friendly policies continues to grow and that intentions are transformed into long-term actions.” 13
Wood cites an Ipsos poll from April 2020 that found, despite respondents sharing their concern for the environment, people were largely no more likely to make changes to their own behaviors than when they were previously polled in 2014, whilst just 25% were intending to continue their new sustainable habits in a post-COVID-19 society.
This suggests that, whilst the pandemic has clearly influenced our perceptions regarding sustainability, the onus is on global governments to ensure that people act on their sentiment and make more sustainable choices long into the future.
Although it won’t be easy to implement at a time where many industries are failing due to the damaging effects of the pandemic, COVID-19 has opened our minds up to the possibility of a sustainable future - now it’s up to governments around the world to ensure that this isn’t a great opportunity missed.
1 Noah S. Diffenbaugh et al (2020) “The COVID-19 lockdowns: a window into the Earth System - Nature Reviews.” 29 Jul. 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/s43017-020-0079-1. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
2 Masashi Soga (2021) “Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on human–nature interactions: Pathways, evidence and implications” https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pan3.10201 06 Apr. 2021. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
3 Tori DeAngelis (2020) “Could COVID-19 change our environmental behaviors?” American Psychological Association, Vol 51. No. 5. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/environmental-behaviors. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
4 Bas Verplanken, Deborah Roy (2016) “Empowering interventions to promote sustainable lifestyles: Testing the habit discontinuity hypothesis in a field experiment” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 45. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494415300487?via%3Dihub. Accessed . 22 Jul. 2021.
5 Katherine Latham (2021) “Has coronavirus made us more ethical consumers?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-55630144. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
6 Jim Manson (2020) “SURGING DEMAND SETS UP US NATURAL AND ORGANIC MARKET FOR 9.5% GROWTH IN 2020” Natural Products Global. https://www.naturalproductsglobal.com/featured/surging-demand-sets-up-us-natural-and-organic-market-for-9-5-growth-in-2020/. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021
7 Luisa Cheshier (2020) “UK organic market hits ten-year high” Fruit Net. http://www.fruitnet.com/fpj/article/183314/uk-organic-market. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021
8 “Consumer passion for the environment grows as a result of the pandemic” MasterCard Newsroom. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
9 The impact of the coronavirus so far: the industries that struggled or recovered. Office for National Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/output/articles/theimpactofthecoronavirussofartheindustriesthatstruggledorrecovered/2020-12-09. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
10 "39 Glasses Statistics - Vision Magazine - Eyeglasses.com." https://blog.eyeglasses.com/vision-magazine/glasses-statistics/. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
11 Robert Barouki (2021) “The COVID-19 pandemic and global environmental change: Emerging research needs” Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020322273. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
12 “The Climate Change Pandemic: How COVID-19 could accelerate our engagement with sustainability” Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/the-covid-19-pandemic-may-accelerate-the-climate-change-transition.html. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
13 Hayden Wood (2020) “Covid-19 made us live more sustainably. Now what?” WIRED. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/pandemic-sustainable-living. Accessed 22 Jul. 2021.
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