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Trends in affordability and sustainability

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president of Accenture number in the emerging markets region, helping brands find growth and relevance through experience transformation.

Unchecked consumerism and climate change served as the backdrop for many post-apocalyptic films such as Kevin Reynolds’ cult sci-fi classic water world or even Pixar’s popular children’s film Wall-E† Both depict dystopian versions of Earth, a planet flooded by global warming or rendered uninhabitable by waste.

Part of our fascination with these fictional environments is that to many they don’t feel like entirely improbable scenarios – a world destroyed by thinking about abundance, a mindset in which resources are seen as unlimited and therefore spur unsustainable patterns of consumption.

For decades, companies have built their growth strategies around promoting the consumption of goods and services, linking growth to the ability to sell more to customers. Affordability, speed and convenience were prioritized over other considerations, and the availability of raw materials and natural resources to fuel demand was hardly questioned.

This is starting to change. According to recent research in my company’s trends, the evidence points to an end to thinking abound and the need for companies to evolve their business models to stay relevant.

Over the past year, consumers have come face to face with empty shelves in supermarket aisles and shortages in day-to-day services. A lack of readily available raw materials, labor shortages and overloaded distribution channels have tested thinking in abundance.

In Vietnam, exporters have struggled to meet global demand due to lockdowns. The inability to ship Vietnamese coffee beans means some customers are sitting in idyllic cafes in Japan. Other countries such as Spain or Italy may have a bitter taste in their mouths from price hikes – figuratively and literally – due to climate change drought in Brazilthe world’s largest exporter of coffee, roasters have been forced to switch coffee bean varieties and use cheaper and more bitter-tasting beans.

While scarcity will be seen as a threat to some, it is not new to many. Price increases disproportionately hit those who already have little, making it even harder to make ends meet. Globally, inflation is increasing, driven by rising transport costs and energy prices. Action on climate change has been another catalyst, arguably the zeitgeist of the decade with rhetoric on the subject driven by younger generations, especially in the Asia-Pacific, where more than half of the youth in the world

After an uneasy re-acquaintance with scarcity, consumers are rethinking how they buy and who they buy from; one of my company’s studies found that sustainable products and services were ranked in the same way important for their convenience.

And it’s not just consumer confidence that moves the needle against thinking about abundance. Last year, China’s Singles Day Shopping Season reflected the nation’s move to regulate excesses in many sectors including big tech, entertainment and gaming to promote sustainability and better distribution of wealth.

Companies are under increasing pressure to intervene and solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, but the challenge is not without opportunity.

Embracing scarcity and striking a balance between affordability and sustainability

The balance between affordability and sustainability should be at the heart of your brand’s marketing and innovation, both in the short and long term.

To maintain sustainable behaviour, brands will have to think differently. One possible approach outlined in my company’s recent trends research is to extend the life of a product rather than continue to indulge in a culture of planned obsolescence.

For example, fashion rental platforms such as MADThread, Closet Share and The Treasure Collective leverage these concepts and create value for consumers by empowering people rent and wear trendy clothes without breaking the bank and contributing less to the ecological footprint of fast fashion retail.

In September 2021, the European Commission has proposed a rule that encourages manufacturers to create a universal charging solution for phones and small electronic devices to encourage reuse of existing chargers and reduce waste. The “Right to repair” rule in the UK states that manufacturers are now legally obliged to give people who buy electrical appliances access to spare parts. Just as internet privacy rules passed by the EU have become commonplace, in other regions we might see more emphasis on extending the life of such devices in other regions.

As well as assessing product life cycles, this is also a time to think about vulnerable supply chains. Companies can analyze them for circularity and find places to replace the traditional ‘take, make, throw away’ business model with one that focuses instead on reusing and recycling materials.

This means exploring new practices such as dynamic pricing, micro-factories and hyper-localized manufacturing. You can also find opportunities to share existing resources instead of creating from scratch. For example, upcycling companies do everything from: turning leftover bread into beer to making functional furniture from used coffee grounds.

As we begin to embrace scarcity in business, we don’t necessarily have to look at it from a loss-making perspective. The boardrooms of the world must come to accept that innovation does not have to mean new and that less sales do not have to lead to loss of revenue. Rather, it may be an opportunity to embrace new business models.

Brands have the opportunity to change the zeitgeist of this year, shifting conversations towards purposeful consumption, while mapping out how to create a better world while doing business. Even against the backdrop of supply chain issues, environmental concerns and changes in work cultures, there is a unique opportunity for brands to drive change and balance affordability and sustainability. You can help consumers make better choices for the benefit of the planet and long-term brand equity.


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