Many commentators have voiced concerns that a pandemic may reverse some of the pre-COVID momentum gained by climate campaigners.

Considering COVID-19’s dramatic effect on both public health and global economies, as the world looks to recover, it seems possible that the incredible efforts made before the outbreak to build public awareness on climate change and its effects may be overlooked.

This isn’t the case. When consumers were asked how the importance of cutting down on single-use plastics, reducing carbon footprints, or companies behaving more sustainability had changed for them as a result of COVID-19; 56% citied at least one of these initiatives as having become a lot more important.

That’s the majority of the 17,149 internet users we surveyed in 20 countries between May 19th and May 26th.

What’s more, when we also include those who said that the importance of one of these options had improved at least a little, the percentage rises to 82%.

In this blog, we explore how climate change has maintained its importance amid an unprecedented pandemic.

Profiling post-COVID environmentalists

Let’s first take a look at those who said that the importance of at least one of the options mentioned above had increased a lot. 

These post-COVID environmentalists¹ are slightly more likely to be male (55% vs. 45%).

Unsurprisingly, younger generations also lead the way here; 62% of Gen Z fall into this group, followed closely behind by 59% of millennials.

However, older generations aren’t necessarily trailing too far behind. Gen X and baby boomers are only slightly further back, at 50% and 42% respectively.

This audience is also 1.3 times more likely than the average to be altruists, meaning they think it’s very important to contribute to the community they live in; they strive for equality; and would pay more for sustainable/eco-friendly products.

Ultimately, the importance of climate change transcends traditional demographic and psychographic attributes.

While Gen Z and altruists may lead the pack, climate change’s importance today, even in a post COVID-19 world, appeals across much of society. 

Middle-income nations take the lead in the call for sustainability 

Personal attributes aside, where consumers live appears to have a far greater influence on whether COVID-19 has made sustainable actions more important to them.

The World Bank classifies the world’s economies into four income groups: high, upper-middle, lower-middle, and low. A country’s position is determined by its Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.

Middle-income economies (both upper and lower) are generally home to a higher proportion of post-COVID environmentalists than their high-income neighbours, with Italy being the only anomaly to this trend.

Importance of climate change in different economies

When expanding the definition of post-COVID environmentalists to also include those who said that the importance of climate change had increased at least a little, the trend persists. In this case Romania is the only outlier, falling to 9th place, and among the high-income countries.

This evidence supports recent discussions that middle-income countries are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change.

Regardless of whether consumers are feeling more or less concerned, climate change won’t affect regions equally – lower and middle-income countries are the most likely to witness a loss of income, poverty, and economic crises as a result.

This is in part due to an overreliance on agriculture, conflict over natural resources, and lack of or inadequate governance, but also due to their location.

The majority of middle-income nations are nearer the equator where temperatures are set to rise the most and suffer from variation. Northern, richer countries by contrast, will be affected much less.

The effect of COVID-19 on middle-income nations is likely to put more strain on their current fragile systems brought about by climate change and bring these problems further to the forefront of discussion.

What’s more, many of these nations are concerned that COVID-19 has overtaken climate change in terms of perceived threat. The resultant lack of action in global progress toward sustainability could be devastating.

In late May, the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow were delayed by a year. Sonam Wangdi, from the Kingdom of Bhutan, who chairs the Least Developed Countries group at the UN climate talks, said: “to focus on recovering from the Covid-19 crisis while ignoring action to address the climate crisis would only lead to more devastation in the future.”

A coming together of responsibilities

Among consumers, not only are calls for sustainability now louder than before, they’re directed at everyone.

Globally: 

  • Almost 3 in 4 say it’ll be more important that companies behave sustainably because of COVID-19.
  • 2 in 3 think it’ll be more important than before to reduce their personal usage of single-use plastic.
  • 7 in 10 feel there’ll be heightened importance on reducing their personal carbon footprint/environmental impact.

We often see a much bigger gap between the responsibility that people place on companies vs. what they’re willing to undertake personally. While this discrepancy is still present, the fact it is such a small gap should offer some encouragement.

The onus isn’t placed solely on companies, consumers are accepting personal responsibility as well.

Nonetheless, younger generations, as noted previously, are more likely to say the importance of sustainability has increased because of COVID-19, likely driven by movements such as extinction rebellion and activists like Greta Thunberg.

Younger generations most concerned about sustainability post-covid

Climate models predict we’re currently on track for global temperatures to rise somewhere between 3C° and 4C° by 2100. It’s no wonder younger generations are leading the demand for sustainable change considering that Gen Z, for example, will spend their adulthood dealing with the consequences of environmental destruction.

During the pandemic, images emerged of the environment’s improvements when humankind’s industrial activity was significantly cut back. Images of Chinese pollution levels during February show the true extent of this change, while reports claim that the Himalayas were visible to parts of India that had not seen them for decades. 

If consumers ever needed a stark reminder, and an example of pollution’s dramatic impact, it was this.

As a result, a new surge in demand for sustainable action has developed, building on pre-COVID momentum. This is a trend that brands should be taking significant notice of.

How brands can meet consumers halfway

Among post-COVID climate change environmentalists, 45% say that the outbreak has had a big or a dramatic impact on their personal/household finances. Nearly 9 in 10 have delayed a major purchase and around 2 in 5 don’t expect to return to shops for at least some time once they reopen.

As transmission rates of COVID-19 decline, the pandemic will continue to evolve from a health crisis into a financial one.

We know consumers are typically price-sensitive, and as we’ve seen in our data this continues to be a key driver – 92% of post-COVID environmentalists approve of brands offering flexible payment options and 91% approve of them offering promotions. This is actually slightly higher than the average consumer.

While consumers have high expectations of brands and recognize the importance of sustainability themselves, price will likely continue to be a barrier to adoption that needs to be addressed. 

Sustainable products typically come at a higher price point, and with increasing financial consciousness building among consumers, brands need to consider ways they can help make consumers’ sustainable ambitions a reality.  

Sustainable action is a trend that, rather than curtailing, COVID-19 has further propelled into the forefront of consumers’ minds.

More than ever, it should be on businesses’ radars to drive growth for the future. Now is not the time to get complacent. 

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¹Post-COVID environmentalists say that at least one of the following is a lot more important for them because of COVID-19: reducing usage of single-use plastics, reducing their carbon footprint, or companies behaving more sustainably.

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