This post was originally written for and published on CSRwire's Commentary section, Talkback, on January 7, 2014.
No, this is not another “looking at 2014” piece. I am more interested in looking a little further ahead. The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and there are larger trends changing the world in ways we can hardly imagine.
Imagine, for example, if we somehow had better insight into how transportation would change across the world over the last 50 years. Or how manufacturing will shift away from the U.S. and other developed countries or how the brands we love dissolve into nothing more than grand design houses with limited manufacturing capabilities. Not to mention how technology has changed the world — wish there was an app for all that.
I’m more interested in the mega trends that will shape our world over the next 50 years. What will drive the fundamental change in the way we source, manufacture, interact, communicate, build relationships, sell, transport, etc? In short, here are four mega trends that I believe will change the world of sustainability in a way that makes most of what we think is important today silly and obsolete.
Well, we’re done with the silly season, after all …
1. Everything Is Personal
The rise of the individual over the group has in itself become a group activity. The marketplace of people has become so crowded that people are fighting to stand out. We have moved from the Pepsi Generation to the Me Generation. From consumers to individuals. This is already challenging the way brands interact with people, as people want to be known as Jane, Dick and Sipho — the individuals. They want brands to conform to them and not the other way around.
Brands who want to survive must find a way to engage in a conversation — a dialogue — where they are informed as much as what they inform. In other words, get ready to lose control of your brand to save it. As the new Edelman brandshare™ study shows, brands who ignore this new sharing revolution do it at their own cost. By losing control and allowing your own brand to become individualized you will empower individuals to love you, connect with you and advocate on your behalf.
At the same time, you will also lose control of what your brand looks like. Conversations with consumers won’t stop at Likes. They will want to be part of the design process. In many cases, they already are – go design your own Timberland boots or Nikes today.
This mega trend will also influence how companies implement sustainability across their value chain. As technology and transparency make the world smaller, consumers will be driven toward making everything personal – and leveraging the power to know where their purchases came from, i.e., manufactured, sourced, farmed, etc. It’s already possible — we can trace coffee, wine, water, cocoa and even diamonds to any specific location today. And this is already playing out in the marketplace with sales of fair trade coffee outstripping the sales growth of traditional coffee.
As individuals design their own products they will also have the ability to pick the ingredients and/or materials, enabling them to make ethical choices from the source right through to disposal. As a brand, your ability to control your supply chain will thereby become even more important — because your consumer will drop you if you can’t give her the right goods to make your product.
2. Two Classes
Income inequality is growing faster than ever before. The rich aren’t just getting richer — they are getting richer at a rate that is bad for the U.S. and global economies.
Simply put, income distribution in the U.S. and in the world is unsustainable. This isn’t an ethical issue but a sustainability issue. I am not making a judgment call on whether the rich should or should not own as much as they do or whether CEOs should get paid as much as what they do — I am merely looking at the impact of this fast-growing income inequality. The impact hampers economic growth and, as the fall of the Roman Empire showed us, huge income inequalities are bad for countries. Today, the U.S. has a worse level of income inequality than the Roman Empire.
The long-term solution? Either get rid of it or find a way to ignore it.
The problem with the rich in Roman times was that they could not find a way to cut income inequality. They gave a little bit away but never did enough to change the underlying systemic problems and reasons for income inequality. The same is happening today in the U.S. and the world.
Universal health care gives the poor(er) a little bit of breathing space but does not challenge the nature of the economic system and the underlying challenges: an obsession with fast growth, short-term investors addicted to high profit margins irrespective of values, too-big-to-fail industries and companies rewarding high risk-takers, and a reward system that encourages investors and business leaders disconnected from long-term business and societal needs.
This growing income inequality isn’t just a widening of the gap between the rich and poor but, more importantly, changing the nature of the middle class. The middle class has always been the bridge of hope between the poor and rich but now they are carrying an economic burden beyond their means and fast losing pace with the rich.
The new class system, unfortunately, isn’t between rich and poor but rather those who benefit from the system and those who “hang in there.”
While clearly unsustainable, there is little that can be done within the current economic system to alleviate this trend. The result: People will become even more entrenched in their class, defining their needs and wants according to their economic status — an acceptance of life rather than striving towards a new economic class.
However, this financial divide will also create a different kind of economic and social divide. Where you live, eat and play; what you buy and watch; and who you interact with will increasingly be decided according to where you fall in this economic divide, creating a need for economic and social systems that can cater to both societies. You already see this with where people shop, what they drive, where they eat, what they watch, buy, etc. Expect this trend to increase even faster over the coming years.
Examples can already be seen in the fast-growing sharing economy as growing income inequality creates a new economic model that encourages sharing resources for financial gain — aided by developments like the growth of social media and the move toward cities. Uber, Sidecar, Airbnb, etc allow anyone to start their own business and make it personal — but I bet their target audience isn’t those who buy Ferraris or who stay at the Four Seasons.
It is, in fact, a combination of all these trends that is leading to a major shift in how people are adapting the capitalist system to address their needs — but away from the big business model. And regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the impact will change the very nature of business in years to come.
3. 3D Printing
Like the stories of rock bands, the instant sensation of 3D printing has been 30 years in the making. While the discussions today are about immediate controversies such as printing guns, the real disruption with 3D printing will be the ability to print stuff we use every single day — it is already printing apparel and footwear, and even food and human organs!
Imagine the future in 50 years when we will be able to print everything we need from our homes or local 3D print locations. The challenge is not the technology but the delivery of the “ink” to the printers. Traditional transportation methods — trucks and trains — won't be able to keep up with the demand, likely leading to delivery via pipes and cables, much like gas and water today.
While 3D printing has the potential to have significant impact on infrastructure development and transportation, we are decades away from fruition. Today's infrastructure is not geared toward delivering the world of tomorrow. Expect a transformation of cities and how we live and move around, which will lead to enormous changes across supply chains globally.
With people could be printing their Levi’s or Timberlands or even the Big Mac at home, raw materials will be able to skip the middleman – the manufacturer. In other words, 3D printing will complete the move from brands controlling both design and manufacturing to becoming nothing more than design houses.
4. New Generation Gap
The last mega trend is the way social media is changing how we experience information and form relationships. There is a new generation gap between those who see new technologies and social media as an additional way to communicate and interact and those who see it as the only way to communicate.
Social media does not replace personal experiences or the importance of building physical presence to start a relationship — it enhances those relationships. It is an additional way to stay connected with your "network" no matter where they are. And, of course, another way you can consume.
But the younger crowd experiences this new social world differently.For them, the new technology is a natural extension of how they make friends and interact with the world. A snapchat is as good as a handshake. The need for physical interaction is not necessary to build trusted relationships anymore.
This is a huge shift in how humans have developed relationships and organized themselves. The suburb of tomorrow — a place where people go to be with their own community — has gone digital. And then they step outside (if they really have to) to go to work. Social media, like little else, will change the landscape of tomorrow completely. Mega cities just need to connect to us via wireless. We can order cars through a sharing app. Work is a video away.
In other words, social media confirms the move to the personal and will challenge how we organize our social, economic and political systems.
So what will the world of tomorrow look like? Will it be a world of selfish individuals printing their ideal partners at home in their connected mega city apartment? Or will it be one where the individual is celebrated as making up this new connected world where we share what we can eat and print?
Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.