For countries that celebrate it, December and January sees perhaps the biggest annual festival of overconsumption as Christmas and New Year roll together in a global shopping frenzy. Even many of those who do not follow the Christmas celebration for religious or cultural reasons can still find themselves swayed by the glittering abundance on display in stores and the constant calls to meet the 25th December shopping deadline online.
New Year then brings the overconsumption hangover – feelings of guilt, fears of debt and new plans for exercise, health, diet and goals. But then, these often also come with additional purchases that promise to help us to change our lives. But, in reality, it is well known what really matters to people, and what will make lives better – and it’s not shopping.
The global pandemic has brought most of us a renewed awareness of the important things in life: health, family, friends, meaningful work. But even after two years of learning lessons from the lockdowns many of us have experienced – and just a few months after COP26 climate summit in Glasgow brought world leaders together to combat global heating – it is hard to resist the powerful pull of advertising promising us new and shiny things.
The Rapid Transition Alliance is attempting to counter this by looking at real solutions to overconsumption and unsustainable travel. This post introduces the Reset series – a collection of briefings on lessons from the global pandemic on two vital areas for rapid transition: overconsumption and unnecessary travel. Our new set of downloadable short briefings focus on lessons from the period we are living through for scalable, rapid change – evidence-based hope for the future.
The first briefing looks at how the lockdown-induced renaissance in sewing, mending, making and doing has seen people take ownership of new skills, brought communities together and improved peoples mental and emotional well being.
After reacting quickly to capture lessons from the first lockdown at the start of 2020, the Rapid Transition Alliance began in early 2021 to examine the trends in behaviour and systemic change that were emerging during the pandemic, supported by ClimateWorks. We captured reflections by people as this new world unfolded and began to analyse how new behaviours might prove positive for a future low-carbon world. Two of the big shifts we noted were an increased awareness of our own overconsumption across wealthier parts of the world, and a huge reduction in what became “unnecessary travel” – including commuting, holidays and business journeys.
The Alliance documented people focusing on what was important to them – family, time in nature, communicating with friends, and bringing these activities into focus locally. We also spoke to many people experiencing the benefits and challenges of working at home for the first time. Our team has always worked remotely, meeting up perhaps once or twice a year to talk about long-term plans and to see each other socially. During the pandemic this way of working has shifted overnight from a niche setup for tech-savvy people to a completely acceptable way of collaborating, or attending a meeting or event. The effects of home-working were also felt outside the home with a boom in staycations and a huge reduction in overseas travel, particularly flying. Those whose work demanded they be there in person enjoyed more space in buses and trains, making the daily commute a very different experience.
For those trapped at home, we saw a flourishing of activities suited to making do with what you already have to hand. Craft hobbies increased massively, with sewing machines, tools and online “how-to” videos becoming indispensable; mending, making and repairing replaced some shopping for new items; and art, poetry and self expression at home and online surged in popularity.
Online shopping also grew, meaning that the use of our high streets began to be discussed seriously by local authorities; could community space, green space and public art start to repurpose areas previously given up entirely to retail? Meanwhile, people at home turned to cooking and growing vegetables, swapping tips and recipes and signing up for allotments where possible. Many families took the time to learn how to cook vegan food, and the issue of food waste and unnecessary packing rose to the fore.
As the pandemic persisted and developed into a series of waves, with varying levels of restriction on travel, leisure, shopping and mixing, the Alliance wondered how many of these new practices would stick and how far people would revert to how they lived before. We organised events with our members around the world to discuss what the future might look like. Overconsumption is a huge issue in wealthier populations and almost irrelevant in places where the basic needs are still unmet. For those in the middle, new ways of participating in an economy are already being discussed. Sustainable transport options in Africa and India might look very different, but it was interesting to see the issues we all had in common: such as getting planning and policy to work for the majority of people rather than for multinational companies and elite groups.
And we worked with others campaigning to translate these new behaviours into concrete policy aims. One look at the aviation industry, where multiple companies have folded, will tell you that flying patterns have changed permanently for some. These include many businesses, who realise that virtual platforms can work just as well for many types of interaction and save a lot of money, time and pollution. Of course, the aviation industry is fighting hard to maintain its markets, and governments remain reluctant to shift their huge subsidies from air travel to low-carbon alternatives.
At the other end of the transport continuum, the rising popularity of cycling looks set to stay, with new infrastructure locking in bikes as a more important part of our urban mobility systems. As long-distance commuting becomes less common and low-carbon targets begin to bite, the Alliance will be working with members to support campaigns for more space for walking and cycling and less for cars.
Despite heading into 2022 with the alarming scientific knowledge about the reality of global heating laid out before us, we accept that changing human behaviour is always more difficult than sticking with the status quo. But we are at the mother of all tipping points and must make a concerted effort to learn from our successes and mistakes while we can. Thank you to all the Alliance members who have joined us so far on this journey and we look forward to welcoming many more of you in the coming year.
Nicky is a serial entrepreneur who is interested in ways of working that integrate ethics, social justice and sustainability with flexible business models on different scales. She writes for the Alliance and is also Co-founder of the Beaver Trust.