Why COVID-19 is the Tipping Point for Sustainability

by Mar 24, 2020

Why COVID-19 is the tipping point for sustainability.

When you’re a marketing firm that specializes in sustainability, it’s important to understand that sustainability isn’t just a market shift—it’s a complete culture shift. We’ve entered an age where people are fundamentally reevaluating the way corporations should do business and move throughout our world. The era of unrestrained capitalism is finally being called into question and put under scrutiny. That’s quite a departure from our current way of life and a potentially dangerous one if you’re a business.

Tracking market shifts is one thing, but when it comes to creating an effective sustainability strategy, that’s not enough, and it will never be enough. If you only focus on hunting down the hot, mainstream sustainability topics, then the small cultural shifts happening out on the fringes of society will be the snakes that get you. Here at Shelton Group, we specialize in a type of research that we call Fringe Insights, and it’s how we help our clients futureproof their business. In short, Fringe Insights help our clients see those snakes in the grass.

So what does COVID-19 have to do with it? A fundamental cornerstone of our Fringe Insights work is understanding how ideas and behaviors become adopted by a culture. For this, we often use the Rogers Adoption Curve for technology as a proxy. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here it is:

In the curve, you begin with the Innovators and Early Adopters (the Fringe). These are the individuals who often go to the extreme for the causes they believe in, and some of those extremes can get pretty weird, like artificially-growing-celebrity-skin-cells-to-create-a-line-of-George-Clooney-handbags weird. This brings us to caveat number one of Fringe research: not everything on the Fringe becomes mainstream (thank goodness), and the Rogers adoption curve helps to explain why. The crux of this model is that for Fringe behaviors and ideas to make the transition to mainstream culture, they have to cross the dreaded chasm. The chasm in this case is considered the tipping point of adoption because it is the point of social proof, i.e. the reason why this idea or behavior is valid and not completely crazy. This tipping point can be spurred on by an infinite number of reasons, but for Fringe sustainability, it’s looking like that tipping point is COVID-19.

Think about it for a minute. There’s been an ongoing debate that the Paris Climate Accord wouldn’t be enough to stop the two degree increase in global temperatures, and by a lot of models we’re dangerously close to running out of time to prevent that temperature increase from happening. It would take widespread behavior change to ensure we stay under that mark, and in our current world order, some would say it’s all but impossible. People would have to stop driving, telecommute to work, and shift to a plant-based diet. Flights would have to be drastically reduced. Industries would have to slow down. Impossible, right?

Except, that we’re actually doing it right now. COVID-19 has shown us that we have complete control over how the world system operates, as long as we care enough to make the change. We’ve done a number of Fringe Insights studies over the years, and some of the Fringe behaviors we’ve seen that seemed too weird or too hard to make it into mainstream culture have been adopted in less than two weeks. And because of those behavior changes, air quality and water quality are vastly improving in areas that have been notorious problem zones.

Note: There is currently an ongoing debate about the authenticity of some images shared via social media by individuals concerning COVID-19 and pollution decrease.

We’ve proven that we can drastically change our behaviors and our culture to benefit the health of our planet—all we needed was something to push us through the chasm. While this is a huge triumph for the planet, it presents a potential threat to businesses post-COVID-19. Now that we’ve seen we can live like this, why would we go back to the way we were before? Back to the smog and pollution?

The Fringe door is standing wide open right now, so who knows what might come out next? The only way to stay ahead of the adoption curve is by going into the Fringe and seeing for yourself before the next thing crosses the chasm. But, for that, you’ll need a guide, and lucky for you, Shelton Group has an entire team of guides that know how to navigate the Fringe and can help spot those snakes in the grass.

There’s no doubt we’ll be living in a different world post-COVID-19. The only question is if your business is prepared for that world. If you’re not sure that you are, then I suggest getting some snake proof boots sooner rather than later.

Joe Bower
ZME Science

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About the Author

Daniel Ford

Daniel works on multiple aspects of our qualitative research, helping design field studies, moderating fieldwork, and analyzing primary data as well as managing projects for clients like ExxonMobil, Avista and Environmental Defense Fund to ensure they stay on track. As an anthropologist, Daniel brings a unique perspective focused on the nexus between cultural patterns and consumer behavior. Daniel came on board as an intern in October of 2016 and became a full-time Shelton employee in 2018. Prior to Shelton, he held a research internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee. His thesis for his Anthropology degree examined the role gender and racial diversity play in the perception of beer advertising on social media among college students.

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