Two Things Maslow Can Teach Us About What’s Happening Right Now

by Jul 22, 2020

Shelton Stat of the Week

18% of Americans feel they can personally impact the plastic waste problem vs. 27% who felt that way in 2019

We’ve all probably heard of and even referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point. Given the state of the world – and the results starting to come in from our latest polling – it’s worth a deep dive.

The chart below lays out the Maslow framework (sourced from

What can this tell us about what Americans are experiencing right now and what it means for a corporation’s ability to define and leverage its ESG story?

  1. We just can’t be the environmental action-takers that we may want to be when we’re worried about meeting our basic needs. We fielded a “mini” study in May to go through some of our standard Pulse™ questions we’ve been asking for the last 14 years to determine how the pandemic might be impacting beliefs and expectations. It’s clear in our data that Americans feel less able to self-actualize for the environment because they’re panicked about meeting their safety and physiological needs. The top two worries we have – by far – according to our recent polling are the health of the economy and disease outbreaks. Though we still care about climate change and plastics in the ocean, those numbers came down precipitously from when we asked them pre-pandemic, in late February of this year. In February our concern about climate change and plastics in the ocean was exactly where it had been when we asked it in summer of 2019. Introduce a pandemic that threatens our ability to earn a living and keep our families and ourselves safe, and environmental issues take a back seat.

    This is also true for our ability to take action and our ability to “create” ourselves as environmentally friendly action takers.

    • Pre-pandemic, 41% of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products. In the middle of the pandemic that number has come down to 33%.
    • Pre-pandemic, 27% of us felt like we could personally do something about the plastic waste crisis. Today, only 18% of us feel that way.


    Now, in some cases we literally can’t take the actions we used to take – bringing one’s own bags to the grocery store has been temporarily banned in some places. But this is also truly about self-actualization and Maslow’s framework. We just can’t spend the energy to create ourselves, our actions, our lives as environmental stewards when all that energy is being taken up with worry about finances and health.

  2. Americans need to hear from companies like yours what you’re doing to help people – your employees, your communities and those impacted by the pandemic and economic downturn – and to keep us all safe now and in the future. Our polling reveals that Americans are hearing less about every environmental issue we track – less on the news, less on social media, less in advertising, less from friends. That needs to change. Climate change IS the next big health issue and economic issue. Companies, governments and the news media need to continue their efforts to both solve for and communicate about these issues, the actions being taken and what’s needed from every individual on the planet.

    Additionally, more than ever, though, Americans want to hear what companies are doing to make our society better. The environment is one piece of that – in fact, environmental protection, fair wages and employee health and well-being are all tied for first place of things Americans expect companies to take a stand on. And we do expect companies to take a stand:

    69% of us now expect companies to take a stand for social issues – which is up from 62% in 2018.


    But the communications and stories they most want to hear from companies about right now are how they’re taking care of their employees, followed by how they’re helping others through the pandemic and how they’re addressing human health and wellness. This is Maslow’s framework extrapolated out to society – we need reassurance that companies are meeting society’s safety and physiological needs before we can hear stories about a company’s broader vision, purpose and brand (brand being synonymous with self-actualization for a company).

So, stay the course on your environmental and social strategies and action plans. Communicate first and frequently about what you’re doing to help people/employees/communities right now, then follow that with how you plan to help people/employees/communities forever more via your environmental and social commitments. That will help you build real, meaningful connections with your stakeholders and position your brand as a leader and problem solver for the long haul.

News of the Week

How COVID-19 could be used to help win climate change lawsuitsFast Company

Sara Bronin of Fast Company writes, “The pandemic has something useful to teach the climate movement: how the courts might respond to intrusive but life-saving interventions.” Climate change may not feel as imminent or costly or as threatening as the pandemic, but it is certainly upon us, it is certainly threatening, and not doing more about it will cost us greatly in the end. As humans with a finite potential for crisis-management and problem-solving, it’s difficult to make room mentally for two big crisis at once… but we have to make the room. Read the article to learn how pandemic-inspired policy change may set the stage for positive changes for the planet. Read more…


Sustainability and the Never-ending Battle Against BurnoutGreenBiz

It’s near impossible to dedicate energy to preventing and reversing climate change when we are collectively and urgently scrambling to manage the fallout of the effects of a pandemic that just won’t stop — financial instability, job insecurity, depression. But regardless of our collective burnout and necessary rejiggering of priorities, sustainability must not take a back seat. How do we continue to focus on the things we care about, in the middle of a pandemic, without experiencing burnout? Chris Gaither of GreenBiz asked himself, during a moment of burnout, “What’s most important right now? How do I want to be? What will help me make the long-term difference I want to bring to the world?” Read more…


In a way, Covid-19 has made us all fringe consumers.

And today’s fringe will shape tomorrow’s opportunities.

Seeing into the Future: How to build resiliency in a post-Covid world

When a crisis like Covid-19 hits, ideas held by fringe consumers often flood into the mainstream. Once we’re out of crisis mode, those once-fringe ideas won’t just evaporate. They’ll shape how your company builds resilient relationships with consumers, employees and even investors. Our latest report is your head start to being the company you want to be – that consumers want you to be – in a post-Covid world.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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