Slower Living and Changes to Consumption: Reflecting on 2020

Image Credit: Sustainable lounging c/o Christy Dawn

As we draw towards the end of 2020, a year filled with uncertainty and our ability to adapt constantly being challenged, Bianca Foley poses the question – has the pandemic changed the way that we consume forever?

Since entering into a full national lockdown back in March we have seen so many changes in the way that we consume. As the threat of the lockdown loomed in early March we saw hoards of people panic buying essentials like rice, pasta and loo roll, meaning that many of those more vulnerable members of society who were unable to get to a supermarket were either left with nothing, or had to pay extortionate prices at local convenience stores.

Supermarkets were limiting the number of essentials you could buy at a time and there were stories of people stock-piling sundries to the point that they were unable to move around their homes. Items like all purpose flour were unavailable for weeks after lockdown began (may we never see another banana bread again!) and items like hand sanitiser and face-masks were suddenly at the top of every shopping list.

Fashion retail took a hit in store due to non-essential store closures, where online sales rocketed for many retailers with consumers swapping their office clothes for loungewear and pyjamas. A number of British high-street stores have gone into administration as a result of the pandemic. Many were forced to turn to the likes of Amazon to get food and other essentials as many smaller, local grocers were unable to keep up with the demand. However, the longer that we spent in isolation, the more we realised that we didn’t actually need half of the things that we considered to be “essential” pre-pandemic.

How consumers plan to manage spending over the festive period. Credit: Finder

J.P Morgan conducted a study of how consumer spending has changed in the U.S citing that consumers mainly purchased things like household cleaning products, home hair colour kits and vitamins and supplements. Companies like Nestlé saw an increase of around a third for their fresh roast coffee sales as workforces moved to working from home.

Essentially, global lockdown measures have restricted where we can actually spend our money and with so many losing their jobs, the economic consequences of the pandemic mean that consumers don’t actually have the means to spend as much as they used to and with no definitive end in sight, household incomes may continue to fall in the coming months. There has been quite a drastic shift in where consumers now choose to spend their cash, with many opting to spend on exercise equipment or streaming services for entertainment, over things like dining out, travelling and other non-essential products.

For those of us working in offices and other non-essential workers, the pandemic brought about a new way of working from home, meeting virtually and not being able to communicate as easily with those whom we would normally see on a daily basis. Many of us, myself included, adopted a much slower approach to life. What started as a frantic need to prove ourselves in working from home, working longer hours (hands up if you did a 14 hour day from time to time) eventually became something so much more relaxed and fluid. We began taking time for ourselves and exercising more (couch to 5k anyone?!), having proper lunch breaks, spending more time with those in our households and enjoying more home-cooked meals. We learned to enjoy our time at home and not take it for granted. 

I for one have always been a busy person. I’d work all day and attend events and social gatherings in my free time so adapting to this slower way of life was a bit of a culture shock. I used to grab food as and when I needed it where I now do a weekly shop and prepare the majority of my meals. I’m lucky enough to live a short walk from my local supermarket and when i do shop, I’m thinking more consciously about my purchases. As part of my research for this article, I took to Instagram to help me understand the viewpoint of my followers. Many said that they hadn’t been into a physical shop for a long time, while others said that they have begun “window shopping online” and only buying items that they really feel that they need. “Life feels calmer now, more relaxing”, a sentiment that I can agree with. This slower paced way of life has also opened up the door for mental health awareness and how important it is to take care of oneself. The focus has now shifted from glorifying “busy-ness” to slowing down and taking care of your physical and mental health has become a priority. With regards to consumption, I’ve personally made a lot of changes. I’ve always shopped second hand for fashion, but I’ve started shopping for furniture and other home decorations in the same way. Pre-pandemic, I would go into my local supermarket on my way home, I now buy more of my veg from a local farmer’s market and will only buy what I really need. There is less; and in some cases no plastic and I’m buying more seasonal vegetables. I’ve never been great at taking time for myself, but this year I have learned to appreciate my own company so much more. You could say that I have seen enormous benefits to slowing down and being more mindful.

As large parts of the world settled in for a long ride with national and local lockdowns, so many of us have ditched conventional schedules in favour of working more flexible hours. We’ve seen attitudes towards consumption change as consumers started to become more mindful of their everyday purchases. They are concerned with brand values, sensitivity to their lived experiences and how a brand impacts not only society but the environment.

Fast forward to November – and social media was awash with photos of beautifully decorated Christmas trees, followed by the caption, “2020 has no rules”. It seemed that even though a second wave was imminent and we were heading back into our second national lockdown, the idea of missing out on the festive season was too much to bear. In recent years, the US shopping holiday known as Black Friday promotion has gained traction in the UK and this year was no different. Retailers from every sector pumped money into advertising their “Black Friday Deals” in a bid to drive sales and bridge the gap for sales lost due to store closures this year. Online sales have been incredible for many retailers but average spend is set to be lower this year compared to 2019, with continued strain from the pandemic forcing shoppers to spend more wisely this year.

Even though London’s popular shopping destination Oxford Street resembled a mosh pit hours after the second lockdown restrictions were lifted, it’s promising to see that so many Brits are now looking at ways to make their money stretch this festive season and beyond. It goes without saying that we want to give and receive gifts, but consumers are realising that these gifts don’t need to be extravagant.  The idea that so many more of us are happy to consider re-gifting, buying second hand or making gifts in lieu of more traditional gifts means that we as consumers are really starting to be so much more considerate. Maybe we can take this new found sense of consideration for ourselves, our time and our pockets away as a positive lesson from what has been such an unprecedented moment in our history.