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What Consumer Culture Will Look Like In 2020 (And How Brands Can Adapt)

It may only be eight years away, but a lot of things could change by 2020, driven by climate change and limited resources. How that will affect the ways we interact with brands remains to be seen, but there are a few likely paths.

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:

My Way

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.

Sell It To Me

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.

From Me To You

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.

I’m In Your Hands

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.

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  • Charles000

    I can appreciate the effort of trying to present four distinctly unique versions of a near future scenario - but none of these are actually likely to occur.  Climate change may be at least partially driven by human activity, but even if such is the case, this has no real affect on the real world circumstances already becoming manifest.  

    The world is not a mono-culture, and never will be.  

    There may be pockets of various populations interested in (let alone capable of) adopting some aspects of the more utopian visions of a near future shaped by sustainable economic and resource consumption policies, but human beings in general are not often driven by reason and logic for the sake of the better good.  History does not provide much evidence for such.

  • Shorty1976

    Everythoing predicated on climate change is a little much. Rather extreme. there are more negative economic impacts based on Government jiggering bailouts across the global that are creating the supply chain and expense pressures.

  • Parham Santana

    "Mistrust" is the popular word today and maybe in 2020. But, out of "mistrust" comes new visions. I am already seeing small business popping everywhere in the USA full of new visions. Farmers opening stores in urban areas to sell their goods, communal gardens, Brew Shops, Artisanal shops. This "new visions" movement will continue to grow and will give alternatives to consumers.

  • jhaime

    Highly amusing considering the 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar, with fully air conditioned 60 000+ capacity stadiums. ha... not exactly eco. Keep dreaming. The net (or grid) will bring about more collaborative ways of daily life, we'll have autonomous cars, holographic entertainment and more people living in cities but not much else will be different. 

  • Brooke B Farrell

    It's really interesting to imagine these scenarios, especially right now when the large multi-national companies seem to be the ones who are so heavily involved in the sustainability conversation (via World Business Council on Sustainable Development, via their own sustainability initiatives, via marketing new "green" products to consumers, etc). 

    If resource scarcity and major disruptions to supply chains continue to increase in frequency (think Japan's recent issues for example and the global impact they had on supply chains), the volatility in business - both small and large - is going to be a significant change in the way our world works. 

    As a consumer, most of us take for granted that the stuff / brands we need or want will be accessible, even affordable. When that changes, the gap between the 1% and the 99% will start to feel even more stark (even to the top quartile). 


  • Gregg Masters

    If nothing changes, nothing changes. Human nature, absent a transcendent and transformative (i.e., liberating shift from the addiction to stuff, status or attention) experience whether self or circumstantially imposed, will still ping pong between a fight/flight series of narrow life choices.

    To the extent social media merely provides data 24/7 for that 'look at me' lens, we're all f**ked. Perhaps the consciousness shift of the 2012 holds some promise for a collective shift from the me generation on steroids, to an 'it takes a village' or burning man type community sense of belonging; though I don't think burning man plays well in Kansas, or Nebraska for that matter.

    So, the jury is out. Either social media is about transformation, or it's merely enables better ways to buy things we don't need from corporation's (i.e., people) we don't like, to solve problems we don't really have.

    The truth is our biggest problem, is not our biggest problem, but what we think is our biggest problem. What's going on between your ears?