The global recession hasn’t changed our consumer culture all that much, but just wait a few years. Increased resource scarcity, population growth, and climate change have the potential to reshape the entire consumer supply chain.
The brands that succeed will be the ones that are the most adaptable to whatever nature throws our way. The Consumer Futures 2020 report, developed by the U.K.'s Forum For The Future, takes a stab at imagining what consumer culture will look like nearly a decade down the line. There are four potential paths we might take:
In this scenario, the economy is prosperous and entrepreneurial, local government thrives (but national government is weak), society is optimistic but still divided between the 1% and the rest of us, and we mostly buy items from local brands, individual producers, and online exchanges. Our relationship with brands is unpredictable, and largely based on peer recommendations and quality of products (the dollar store isn’t so popular anymore). The concept of "sustainability" is important at the local level, but on a larger scale, our own needs are more important. Popular products include the personal energy micro-manager; the "ethical comparator app," which allows users to scan any item and watch it being made (sounds a lot like GoodGuide); and solar chargers built into clothing.
This is a fairly rosy view of our future—one where we rise up from the current recession and modify supply chains to become much more fluid. Canal freight, local coastal shipping, private road and rail networks, and cargo-carrying airships are now commonplace. Of course, the planet is still dealing with resource scarcity and volatile food prices.
In this future, the global economy is flourishing, consumers spend like crazy, and large companies rule. These big companies are trusted and counted on to offer solutions to pressing environmental problems. We purchase items from brands we trust and all-encompassing "shopper-tainment" villages. "Sustainability" is thought of us a mainstream issue, but one that doesn’t require a lifestyle change because businesses will deal with it. Local government is weak, but national government is strong. Popular products include branded, specialized local produce, personalized products (i.e. cereal made to order, soap bars with individual scents), and patio heaters powered by household waste (an example of consumers not having to change their lifestyles to mitigate environmental damage).
This is possibly the least plausible scenario. It speculates that transport infrastructure will become more expensive, but it seems implausible that resource issues and climate change won’t dramatically interfere with a globally dominated supply chain—even one that only sources products in direct response to consumer demand.
The economy here is uncertain, everyone is worried about climate change and extreme weather events, local communities are increasingly looking to alternative economic models (and the Transition Town movement), and the government has lost our confidence. There is a general distrust of big business, and people buy local and direct. Peer-to-peer swap services are also popular, and people increasingly produce their own food in urban farms. Word of mouth and product quality are far more important than brand loyalty. Popular products include the "UGrow" service, which lets users sell their produce through regional and national distributors; hemp ( just in general); and an online filtering system that lets users set geographical parameters on their purchasing decisions.
The "From Me To You" scenario seems plausible enough. High oil prices have resulted in the increased popularity of railways and canals, and supply chains have had to become much more diverse in response to supply failures and climate change. Instead of giant distribution centers, retailers use smaller, local systems.
This world has an economy that is slowly recovering from the recession, strong national identities, big businesses that are required to follow strict government environmental guidelines, and centralized governments. Consumers purchase things from trusted brands, even buying in to long-term contracts to get better value. Everyone is happy to share personal data with companies that provide quality, durable products. The most popular products include meals delivered from the local supermarket using anything you want from the store; retailer-leased washing machines, dishwashers, and other appliances; and personalized health products (smoothie with statins, anyone?).
This is the Big Brother scenario—but in this case, Big Brother is actually doing some good. One thing that’s still in trouble: transportation, which hasn’t changed much since today. Congestion is a huge problem, even in the face of sky-high oil prices. Supply chains have largely integrated vertically, and they efficiently use transport infrastructure, including airships and ultra-long freight trains.
Chances are, the real 2020 will fall somewhere in the middle of these scenarios. But for what it’s worth, our money is on a combination of "My Way" and "From Me To You"—smaller, local economies with an emphasis on decreasing waste and maximizing resources. Worried companies (and everyone else) can check out all of the scenarios here.