The environmental impact of Covid-19 has been one of the most debated topics in the last couple of months. With vacationing and business travel coming to a halt almost everywhere and a large number of the most densely populated cities on the planet forced into a lockdown state, many were initially expecting drastically lower levels of carbon emissions to be one of the very few positives that 2020 is going to leave behind.
Indeed, the data that emerged throughout the first couple of months of the crisis was encouraging: for instance, in China emissions fell 25% at the start of the year and at the end of March pollution levels in New York had reduced by nearly 50% in comparison to the same time the previous year. Over time, however, the situation seemed to trend back towards the norm. According to National Geographic, “in early April, with shutdowns widespread, daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent compared to last year. But as of June 11, new data show that they are only about 5 percent lower than at the same point in 2019, even though normal activity has not yet fully restarted.”
Seeing is believing
Carbon emissions are not the only factor to consider. The waste situation is also critical. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic in China, medical waste increased from between 40 and 50 tons/day before the outbreak to about 247 tons on 1 March. The increases generated by the widespread adoption of single-use masks and gloves, combined with the reduced work force available, have also had an impact on waste management organizations’ ability to deal with the situation.
Which takes us to commerce. eMarketer estimates that “US consumers will spend $709.78 billion on ecommerce in 2020, representing an increase of 18.0%.” Certainly this is going to have an impact in terms of how manufacturing, packaging and delivery supporting this growth are going to affect the environment. It’s hard to assess whether consumers would have had a worse impact on the environment by shopping more in physical locations, but we can assume that their perception of the waste generated by online shopping is going to be heightened in 2020 like never before. In 2018, as many as 41% US consumers received one to two Amazon packages per week; it will be interesting to see what these metrics will look like by the end of this year.
What is Green Friday?
This heightened perception of waste generated by e-commerce may have an impact on the way consumers shop in the upcoming holiday season. In recent years, some anti-Black Friday movements have emerged: the earliest of its kind was Buy Nothing Day, which started in Canada in 1992; in the last three years, Green Friday has become the most popular of these movements and it seeks to raise awareness about the damage that Black Friday and other consumerist holidays bring to the environment.
As retailers are trying to figure out how to deal with the upcoming holiday season given the uncertainties the backlash of the pandemic continues to cause (for instance, Walmart decided to close its shops across the US on Thanksgiving), brands should consider whether they should develop Green Friday messaging and implement environmentally sound strategies to be able to reassure consumers by the time November comes around. After all, one thing that we heard consistently throughout the crisis is that during uncertain times consumers expect transparency from brands and want to see them act responsibly and live up to their promises.
Near- and long-term solutions for CPG brands
Consumer Product Good (CPG) brands are undergoing a major transformation. The recent events have made it clear that they need to start building direct to consumer relationships, while at the same time cultivating their partnerships with retailers and marketplaces. Among the pressures they are facing, there is competition from digitally native start-up brands, as well as from white-label brands owned by their very own retail and marketplace partners.
One solution that can, in some cases, help CPG brands evolve and adapt to their new circumstances is re-branding or creating new brands to ‘out-start-up’ the start-ups. Consumers often favor alternative brands to know they are shopping in an eco-responsible way, as well as to support local and/or small businesses. Embracing movements like Green Friday and being transparent about how e-commerce operations are being handled can help set new emanations of CPG enterprises off on a good start.
In the long term, all manufacturers need to improve their ability to track products throughout their entire lifecycle, from manufacturing to distribution and retail, and from sales to service and re-sale, so they can gain insights that can help them compete with marketplaces on the last mile of commerce and better understand customer behaviors. As well as leverage end to end, real time product traceability to minimize waste by producing on demand and to be able to provide assurances to consumers with regards to their ability to live up to social responsibilities.