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An Era of Sustainable Consumption?

The Economic Impact of the Pandemic May Usher in New Attitudes and Values

D&T
August 7, 2020

As the world is preoccupied with tackling the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus crisis, a new trend is emerging: a more pronounced drive toward sustainable consumption. Less meat and shorter travels, more local produce in the shopping cart, and a conscious departure from mass consumption are the key aspects of this new consumer behavior.

The signs of a shift toward eco-friendly and sustainable consumption was already emerging before COVID-19 hit the globe. According to Statista, a global statistics provider, electric car sales surged 220% from the first quarter of 2010 through the end of 2019, and research carried by Booking.com, one of the world’s leading digital travel platforms, reveals almost three quarters (72%) of travelers believe that people need to act now and make sustainable travel choices to save the planet for future generations. The views expressed by travelers across the world are timely, considering the special report that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in 2018, which asserts that the world has just over a decade to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which the risk of floods, droughts and extreme heat will significantly worsen.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic may lend new impetus to this trend. With any semblance of “a normal life” seemingly some distance away, people are revisiting their consumption habits with a special focus on eco-consciousness and sustainability. In addition to inner motivation and a sense of responsibility, global economic developments are also urging consumers to become more frugal and to re-think their relationship with goods.

The activist consumer
A survey carried out by French lender Cetelem S.A. in 17 European countries, including Hungary, shows that people are becoming increasingly conscious in their consumption, preferring locally manufactured, eco-friendly products. The results of the survey suggest that a new, activist consumer has become dominant in the markets, willing to leave behind the carefree and happy mass consumption of the past thirty years. Altough the shift toward a more responsible consumption began nearly a decade ago, it seems that an epidemic was necessary for this trend to gain overwhelming significance.
According to the survey conducted by Hungary’s Cetelem Bank among its own customers, one in two respondents stated that they are more cautious about spending as a result of the pandemic, and 84% ranked themselves as conscious, responsible customers. The study is especially relevant as Cetelem Bank specializes in financing goods purchases and issuing credit cards in Hungary. The bank has been providing personal loans to its customers since the turn of the millennium.

Restrained consumption and stonger focus on savings
A glance at shopping processes already shows a different picture: 42% of Europeans say they are consuming less this year than they did three years ago. The emerging trend was only further strengthened by the epidemic, and the willingness of Hungarians to consume was also restrained by economic factors. Before the pandemic hit, 29% of Hungarians planned to spend less on various products and services; in a domestic survey conducted after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, half of the respondents stated that they would reduce their spending in the next 6 months compared to the previous year.
“Hungarians are more conscious than in previous years, showing considerable restraint in their finances," said Péter Szabó, Chief Executive Officer at Cetelem Bank. Some 40% of Hungarian respondents indicated that they want to restrain their spending even after the restrictions, while 20% also want to boost their savings. Customers plan to spend much less on travel, leisure and electronics. In addition, most Europeans strive to waste less, want to have their appliances fixed instead of purchasing new ones. One in four Europeans wants to use more natural means of transport and travel less far and less frequently.

Price no longer the sole consideration
According to research, price is still a primary consideration for European consumers, but there is also an increasing focus on the health effects of products. This is followed by quality, origin and impact on the environment, indicating that the postmodern consumer can be radically picky. In Hungary, consumer sensitivity to environmental issues is much lower, which, according to Péter Szabó, is not independent of the fact that purchasing power is still a central issue.
With respect to food, a key area of conscious consumption, the vast majority of respondents prefer local, organic and seasonal products produced closer to home, while many want to reduce or even stop consuming meat.
In the pandemic-stricken new normal, people are skeptical about mass consumption and the possibility of job loss/pay-cuts is so unsettling that frugality/minimalism has become the order of the day. Experts argue that this attitude is unlikely to disappear entirely once the epidemic subsides and an era of sustainable consumerism will set in.

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