Covid, Consumption, and Change

Provocation for the SCORAI strategy session.

What can we learn from the current evidence from sustainable consumption research to shape a more sustainable post-pandemic world? Where are the urgent research needs that future work in our field should address? This perspective was prepared by the SCORAI Board members. It does not present final conclusions but is intended to trigger a broader discussion amongst the conference participants. A potential outcome of the discussion may be an invited editorial in a high visibility journal.

The Covid-19 crisis has taught us three enormously important lessons: that under certain circumstances, collective and rapid changes to everyday lives are possible; that consumer society has deep fissures within it; and that a sudden reduction in many forms of mass consumption can have grave consequences for societal well-being.

The pandemic shows us that large-scale behavioral change is possible, under certain conditions. What convinced governments to act, and for people to accept draconian lock-down orders, was a serious threat to health which had no immediate technological fix: no vaccine or effective medication. Populations around the world accepted, with relatively little protests, lives with much different modes of working, educating, and doing business. We witnessed less shopping, little driving, no travel and no customary forms of socializing and leisure. As a result, we see a decline in greenhouse gas emissions – temporary and modest in comparison to what is needed– but at a magnitude that, if realized every year, would be sufficient to meet the Paris accords.

As nurses struggled to find PPE and fears of scarcity drove hoarding of toilet paper, the crisis also pointed to the role of the state in supporting societal well-being, a role that has been under attack for the past 30 years. By bringing to light the limitations of the free market economy to respond with speed and resilience to a crisis, Covid-19 challenges the prevailing claim that the free market is the most effective and efficient way to satisfy societal needs. In times of crisis it appears that massive government intervention, both in the form of regulation and financial support, are inevitable.

The crisis also revealed the vulnerabilities of a consumer society that relies on global supply chains, world-wide tourism and travel, the production and consumption of non-essential goods, and on financial markets. In the US we saw enormous inequities in health status and access to health care across lines of race, class and geography. Massive unemployment amongst low- and middle-wage workers in restaurants and in beauty, hospitality, construction, farming, and other sectors revealed the vulnerability of a large portion of the population to the vagaries of the pandemic and economic fluctuations.

Society’s dependence on undervalued forms of work also became more obvious. The Covid-19 crisis prompted a conversation on what occupations and economic activities are essential by revealing entrenched distortions in how work is valued. During the lock-down the term “essential occupations” denoted the occupations which provide goods and services necessary to maintain life and health of the population – “keep the lights on”. Nurses, health aides, sanitation workers, farm workers, and delivery people became everyday heroes.

Covid-19 might help us expand the concept of essential occupations and economic activities to those that contribute to wellbeing for all people, as opposed to those that take away from it. This invokes the notion of a real economy, i.e. occupations and economic activities that circulate money within its boundaries. In the real economy wages are earned through employment and self-employment, and money circulates through activities such as the production, distribution, and consumption of goods, construction of houses, scientific research, and provision and utilization of a wide range of services, from education and healthcare. In the real economy the benefits of personal income of a worker are magnified several-fold through money circulation.

Will some changes in lifestyles be maintained beyond the immediate crisis, including less shopping, less driving, and less long-distance travel? Will the concept of non-essential consumption evolve into the idea of sufficiency? It is impossible to say. Most likely, there will be some re-evaluation of global supply chains and more localized production. Massive unemployment may induce governments to propose investment plans and work programs. Under the best-case scenarios these will be green investments toward climate change mitigation, such as green infrastructure, renewable energy, home insulation, and high-speed rail. Discussions could arise about a shortening of the working week to deal with unemployment and universal basic services. Funding these programs and paying for emergency actions may lead to a more progressive income tax if the political context changes. Ultimately, the health and economic crisis might force politicians and policymakers to focus on the real economy rather than GDP or stock market indices as measures of progress.

We may be better prepared for the next pandemic because of this crisis. However, it is less clear if Covid-19 has made us more aware of the looming climate crisis, which will have even larger impacts on health, wellbeing, and the economy – and against which there will be no vaccination. So far, the dominant political answers seem to go into the direction of restoring a GDP growth-oriented economy without a lot of attention to reducing GHG emissions or shifting to an economy that fosters wellbeing and social equity within planetary boundaries.

We are currently observing a strengthening of the role of the state in the provision of basic services, and an increasingly critical public discourse on the influence and responsibility of financial markets and multinational companies for the future viability and resilience of society. Research is called upon to observe these trends, to accompany them, and to leverage those that could generate sustainability transformations. This not only includes but necessitates research on the impacts of the crisis on consumption patterns, how consumers cope with these impacts; and what government interventions on all levels imply for changing consumption patterns. More than ever, SCORAI researchers are called to investigate which interventions during this pandemic have been effective in moving the economy from one that is mostly dependent on private consumption and consumerism, and largely driven by financial markets, to a more sustainable and regenerative real economy.