At the start of 2020 one of the fastest growing market sectors for promotional branded merchandise was those which were either recycled or non-plastic. The eco-friendly product was the one that all marketers were interested in and the product the brand wanted to use to demonstrate their social responsibility credentials.
Now 7 months later the world has changed as millions have fallen ill with Covid19. Many sectors of the economy have come to a standstill including the events and exhibitions industry and many marketers have found themselves either furloughed or working from home.
So what will happen as things get back to normal? What will be the new normal? has Covid killed the ideal of eco-friendly? Will we focus on other things or has Covid demonstrated that we can live our lives differently in a way that does not impact the environment. Let’s examine the two sides of the argument.
We have all read the stories of the change to the environment during lock down. Cleaner air and rivers – fish in the canals of Venice and wildlife venturing into urban streets free from cars. The BBC reported that ‘pollution in New York has reduced by nearly 50% because of measures created to contain the virus’ and ‘coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants’ - as well as –‘China’s CO2 emissions fell 25% at the start of 2020’.
As Kimberly Nicholas, sustainability science researcher at Lund University in Sweden told the BBC “It may be the case that people who are avoiding travel right now are really appreciating spending time with families and focusing on those really core priorities. These moments of crisis can highlight how important those priorities are and help people focus on the health and of family, friends and community.” The argument being that we can change our lives in quite drastic ways we can live more sustainably and we can make a difference by the millions of small actions we take.
If this argument hold true then any promotional merchandise in the future will have to be eco-friendly. Plastic giveaways simply become socially unacceptable like drink driving or smoking in public. The promotional goods industry will only be able to sell products if they have proven sustainability credentials and the eco-product goes from being a growing trend to being the norm.
The National Geographic magazine reported a very different view under the heading ‘Why Covid-19 will end up harming the environment’, in the article they interviewed professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the original study and subsequent update. “So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.” Now, “the risk is very high” that carbon output could surge past pre-pandemic levels, she says, “especially since we’ve done it in the past, not very long ago.” During the 2007-08 financial crisis, emissions dropped but then bounced back. We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses.” Whilst accepting that global carbon emissions are down 17% she fears that the rush to economic recovery will mean the environment falls from everyone’s agenda.
The National Geographic draws on a couple of examples to reinforce its case. Pointing to the financial aid given by the US Federal Reserve to industry they quote Lukas Ross of Friends of the Earth who points to ‘companies’ pleas for cash, regulatory rollbacks and other special favours and worries that “There’s a serious risk that polluters could emerge from this crisis bolder and potentially more profitable than ever.” The other example is the situation in Brazil where illegal loggers have accelerated the destruction of the Amazon Rain forest while the
The danger is that the need to recover the employment levels will be far in excess of the environmental need. For eco-friendly promotional products, which tend to be more expensive than their polluting counterparts, the danger is clear. A rush to create economic activity will push the environment to the bottom of priorities. Marketers will seek volume at the expense of brand authenticity.
For the promotional goods industry predicting the trends of the marketer and the brand promotion business is a thankless task. We can only stand by our principles and listen to the needs of our customers. We can state our environmental case in the strongest terms but we do not make buying decisions. Truth is it is likely that different brands and companies will react in different ways.