1) What is your vision of consumer behaviour in the future, and what commercial models and trends do you foresee for 2050?
Sally: In order to answer your question, I will make some assumptions about the trends that will take us to 2050.
Firstly, I will assume that by 2050 there will be no more waste and that trends we see today around resource scarcity have continued to play through. In the future, resources will be properly appreciated as we will put a value on nature’s assets (such as water and carbon), and recycling will be the norm. People will be living a waste-free and resource-savvy life by default since their homes will be powered by renewable energy and they will not be able to throw anything away as there will be no need to. The focus will be on using resources very wisely and getting the maximum utility per input of resource.
The second aspect of my vision for consumer behaviour is linked to the fact that, at the moment, living sustainably is difficult and requires quite a bit of effort to seek out different goods and services to do so. By 2050, I think that a sustainable lifestyle will be mainstream, irrespective of whether consumers have demanded it or not, or if it has been heavily marketed. We will be putting much more scrutiny on how goods and services are produced and how they reach markets. At Forum for the Future, we did some work with Unilever and Sainsbury’s (“Consumer Futures 2020”) on how consumers in developed economies will be living by the end of this decade and what products they will be buying. All the scenarios envisaged in the study showed that even by 2020 sustainability would become mainstream because we are heading into a resource-constrained world. I therefore think it is safe to say that sustainable behaviour will have become the norm long before 2050 and that citizens will just be living sustainably without even calling it that.
What is unknown, however, is the role technology has to play; we currently have the innovation and the technology to make sustainability mainstream, but how that will pan out remains to be seen. For example, our scenarios would indicate that buying a phone to be thrown away after six months/one year for an upgrade just won’t happen in a sustainable world because it is so wasteful. During a project for Sony that looked at the way people will be living in 2025 and the role of technology in enabling sustainability, we prototyped a device called Wandular, which is effectively a smartphone for life. By 2050, therefore, the constant need to replace our devices will cease to exist; we will have one piece of kit that we love and cherish, which we will upgrade as and when needed.
I also think that there will be some changes to where we live, how we live and how we work. People will still go to a place of work but probably much more infrequently than they do today because technology will have advanced. By 2050, we will be working less too, because we will have introduced different kinds of efficiencies into our lives. Certainly we will be living very digitally-enabled lives. The classic example is that in the future, our fridge will be warning us that our milk is running low and will send a signal to the online retailer that in turn delivers the milk (read similar predictions in our Retail Futures 2022 project). Domestic devices will all be communicating with one another as the Internet of Things becomes mainstream, making our homes incredibly efficient and cheaper to run.
My vision of 2050 is one where people have a much better work/life balance and live sustainably very easily.
2) What policy changes do we need to implement to make this vision happen or to combat its challenges?
Sally: Firstly, we need to account for externalities properly within the decisions we make about flows of capital. What I mean by that is that if, as a business or a government, we are deciding on a range of options for housing development, for example, we need to factor in the real cost of the environmental resources that we are using. As things are today, nature’s balance sheet is totally subsidised; we do not pay the true cost of water, carbon and other natural resources, and nor do we pay for the cost of dealing with pollution. Therefore, I think that external valuation techniques whereby we can bring valuation into decision making should be the first policy change.
Linked to that, policy around carbon pricing should also be developed. At the moment, the market is not designed to encourage businesses and public institutions to cut their carbon footprint as there is no incentive to do so. Market mechanisms need to be adjusted so that it makes sense to cut carbon, and this can be done through a government-led policy change.
We also require policies around energy provisions. At the moment, the policy framework is still greatly reliant on non-renewable energy sources (oil and gas) and is heavily subsidised. We need to channel some of that money into renewable energy sources, which should come from a policy shift as well.
Additionally, we need an extension of the current waste policies. In the UK, for example, the price of waste to landfill has been ratcheted up over the years, which has changed behaviours. I think we need policy changes to create the market conditions that encourage capital to be allocated towards sustainable development.
One of the barriers to reaching these policy changes are the political structures that are influenced by organisations and individuals who have interest in the current system, the vested interest brigade. I anticipate this situation changing over the next few years as European citizens get vocal about these issues and putting pressure on governments to do the right thing. Businesses can innovate and create products and services, but unless the market is geared in a way that encourages people to buy the products, we will never reach a situation in which sustainability becomes mainstream.
3) How can both consumers and producers promote and contribute to sustainability in the future?
Sally: I think that to deliver a sustainable future, we need three things:
(1) for governments to create the right policies in order to send the right signals to the market;
(2) for consumers to demand sustainable products and services;
(3) for business to provide those sustainable products and services.
One of the biggest barriers for producers to offer these products and services to the market today is the lack of demand. There are many stories of retailers trying to offer a greener and more sustainable product, but failing because nobody wants to buy it. I think that the failure actually comes from marketing, because with the right approach we should be able to get people to want anything.
Producers need to envision a future where sustainable living is the norm, and think about identifying the products and services in that future to make them happen today. I think they need to be bolder, to use future intelligence to design products and introduce them into the market now, and also to harness the power of marketing and the power of brands to create that mainstream consumer pool. We are starting to see this happening, but it is not fast enough and there is still too much old school marketing, which can also be considered as one of the biggest barriers.
I think that consumers need to wake up, start to have a voice on this agenda and demand the right to be sustainable. In parallel, producers need to unleash the weapons in their armoury and make sustainability desirable. With governments providing the right policy framework, we will have a set of conditions that could lead to sustainability becoming mainstream.
4) Products are increasingly morphing into services. Perceiving an offering as a service rather than a product creates a different and more direct relationship with the producer/manufacturer that skips the reseller. How will this trend of ‘disintermediation’ – removing the middleman – evolve by 2050 and what impact will this have on buyers and sellers?
Sally: In my opinion, the role of a retailer in 2050 will be very different from what it is today. We will see a lot of vertical integration of supply lines as consumers become producers, and producers become consumers. In the future, with distributed manufacturing, we will be able to create products much closer to the point of use; the notion that the retailer sits at the end of a very long linear value chain will be history by 2050.
In many cases, local production will make a lot of sense and we will see traditional retail value chains collapse. The role of the retailer will shift towards a curator role and retail itself will be much more about the experience. As consumers will be able to get everything online, they will need another incentive to go to the stores. A great example is an online retailer in the US that is now guaranteeing the supply of products, such as nappies, to people’s homes within 30 minutes. If people can receive guaranteed products that quickly, they won’t go to the store but will get them online. Instead, consumers will go to the retail outlets to have a coffee, meet with friends and interact, and to feel sample products and services, but the actual products will not be housed in such outlets.
By the middle of this century, I don’t think there will be large out-of-town shopping malls like we have today. Instead, there will be stores close to local communities where you can go to experience (touch, feel and interact), but most purchases will be online. As a result, the shape of the retail value chain will be fundamentally changed, and the role of the retailer will change from selling units to providing an experience to the consumer.
5) How do you envision e-commerce will evolve by 2050? How do you think we can channel the creativity of citizens in 2050 in a new social media driven space, enabling them to pioneer new e-commerce opportunities linked to media?
Sally: I think there are many weak signals regarding e-commerce and that in the future we will see it being powered by citizens. A great example to illustrate this is the ““Global Village Construction Set”, which is a website established by a group of young farmers in the US providing a low-cost platform that allows people to build various industrial machines. Anyone can download a blue print from their website and build themselves a tractor or bulldozer, for example. It is an open-sourced, low-cost and do-it-yourself website, which has a green aspect to it as it helps people include recycled materials into the production. It is also very interactive, which will be a general trend in 2050, as the farmers who manage the website work with the public to provide guidance on building the machines and enter into a conversation about how to improve it. It is taking the open source model to a next level and creating a dialogue around the use of open source technology.
I think that we will see much more of this in 2050, where people are being more creative and offering goods and services through digital platforms and social media. It means that we will have much more diversity in the marketplace. However, from a sustainability point of view, this transformation might cause some problems. To counter that, we will have to use local sourcing and manufacturing, which will also reduce costs of transport.
6) How will marketing and advertising strategies need to adapt by 2050 in order to remain effective when targeting consumers? What role will ICTs and digital media have to play in such strategies?
Sally: There is definitely a certain segment of the marketing community that is fairly sleepy on this agenda. There are a few leaders out there (such as Unilever and Nike) that already understand that they cannot control their brand, nor control what people say about them in the way that they used to. They realise that they are much better off harnessing social media to have interactive conversations with the consumers. A lot of people do not read printed media or watch mainstream television as they did before, so marketers need to reassess how to engage with their consumers and the role of social media platforms in that process. This means taking more risks, being more open and accepting that they are not able to control their message anymore, as they move from broadcasting a message through a one-way channel to curating conversations. I think this is a very different and challenging role for marketing, but a role that companies should embrace.
The role of marketing in 2050 will be much more about assuring people about their product. As a result, we will see far fewer high profile marketing campaigns due to the very fragmented channels through which we receive information.
7) By 2050, new businesses are expected to evolve to leverage personal information. In terms of retailing, how will such businesses have an impact on consumer activity, and what are the associated threats and opportunities?
Sally: In terms of opportunities, we can look at the example of how people will be using their bathrooms in the future. Rather than a place just to wash and get ready, tomorrow’s bathroom might also act as a virtual GP, providing information on vitamin intake, nutritional profiles, health profiles and more (see here for more on the Bathroom GP). With all of this data, they will be able to get very precise information about themselves and have targeted products that are personalised to their specific requirements. This example illustrates the positive side of data proliferation.
The downside is that we risk losing control over privacy as businesses have access to our personal data. I think that we are still working this through but it can be seen as a threat if people stop sharing information. Therefore, transparency and trust will be critical in the future.
8) How will new finance models such as crowd funding and non-monetary systems such as internet-based bartering systems affect consumer behaviour, the economy and sustainability in 2050?
Sally: I think that in 2050 we will see far more non-financial transactions than we ever believed possible. The sustainable economy in the future will have different characteristics than the economy we know today. I mentioned earlier the importance of putting a value on nature’s assets and I think that this valuation will appear in transactions. Additionally, social values will also be more permanent in our transactions as social interactions will remain an important aspect of our lives. In the future, balance sheets of businesses will look quite different, but the model of capitalism will remain similar. It will just be a model where nature is valued properly and social values have a role to play. We will see a mixed economy with much more diverse profiles of transactions.
9) As products will be more and more self-designed and manufactured just-in-time, the roles of consumers and producers are expected to become indistinguishable. How do you expect a do-it-yourself economy, including methods such as 3D printing, to affect the marketplace in 2050? What potential impacts will such an economy have on sustainability in the future?
Sally: From a sustainability perspective, I think that future manufacturing will have clear benefits as we will only produce what we need and will make better use of resources. By producing closer to the end market, we will cut transport costs, resulting in reduced pollution and energy associated with the movement of goods and services.
This type of manufacturing could be very sustainable and positive, but it is not a given yet. I think that we will see more of it by 2050 as it will be harder to transport resources around the world so it will make more sense to produce locally. Additionally, the impact of climate change will bring greater volatility to the supply lines.
In my opinion, a sustainable future will feature shorter supply lines and much more vertical integration, localised production and previsions production.