Welcome to the fourth part of my series on trends affecting the U.S. cultural and business landscapes of 2021. In my previous articles, I’ve examined consumers’ growing need to find peace in a chaotic world. I’ve also addressed consumers’ increased desire to try and share new things, new technology and new experiences. This article explores increasing consumer concern about our impact on the world, and what brands are doing to address it.

2020 gave us a lot of time to think about what we want out of life, what we miss, and what we’ve gained. It also gave us time to think about our impact on the world. Some even went so far as to say that the pandemic helped show that humans were the virus. Unfortunately, that line of thought is a slippery slope into ecofascism, which calls for individuals to sacrifice their own interests, up to and including their own lives, for the “organic whole of nature.” This article by Sapiens provides helpful examples to counter such thoughts, explaining the positive impact humans have had on their environments through history.

We know that sustainability and environmentalism are important to people. 71% of U.S. consumers would describe themselves as being worried about the environment¹. Moreover, many think there are ways they can do something about it in terms of how they interact with companies, such as the 52% of U.S. consumers who agree that buying from ethical brands is a form of activism². Rather than placing the onus for environmental responsibility mostly on individuals, as some schools of thought propose, most people agree individuals are not the only ones with a responsibility to our environment. 63% of people expect companies to continue efforts around social and environmental issues, even after the pandemic³. Fortunately, in the past year, many brands have stepped up.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a big hit at the start of the pandemic as people looked for ways to pass the time. Hellmann’s capitalized on the game’s popularity and did something about food waste in one fell swoop by making an island players could visit to trade in game waste for real-world meals. By turning to the digital world, Hellmann’s addressed a sustainability-based need without the overhead and waste produced by an in-person event.

In October 2020, Panera Bread introduced carbon footprint labeling on its menus. The bakery/café chain worked with the World Resources Institute to determine which of its meals qualify as low carbon and to identify its most climate-friendly options. Over half of Panera’s meals have a lower carbon footprint than the average American diet.

Food brands weren’t the only ones to make changes. Tommy Hilfiger introduced the Make It Possible program, as part of an effort to become a company that “wastes nothing and welcomes all.” Their aim includes the concept of “circle round,” in which they will create completely sustainable clothing by 2030. But the work doesn’t stop there. Other efforts include becoming accessible to all people and to operate with care in areas of production affected by climate change. Tommy Hilfiger’s approach makes it clear that sustainability work cannot happen in a vacuum.

Neither does the work stop at the consumer-facing level. Brands can work from the outside in. Four in 10 Gen Zers from around the globe said climate change is one of the most important issues facing the world, according to a survey by Amnesty International. Gen Z already makes up a quarter of the world’s workforce, and they are bringing their ideals on climate action with them to the office. These young people will be transforming corporate thoughts on sustainability in the years to come.

There are myriad ways for brands to step up and make a commitment to the environment. They can encourage consumers to change their ways or start from within. Either way, it will take a group effort to get the world to a place where we can be proud of our environmental impact. Stay tuned for more updates in my next article.


[1] Base: 2,000 internet users aged 18+
Source: Lightspeed/Mintel

[2] Base: 2,000 internet users aged 18+
Source: Lightspeed/Mintel

[3] https://www.porternovelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19_Tracker_WaveII_Infographic_V4.pdf