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Speaking Sustainably

Two things Maslow's hierarchy of needs can teach us about what’s happening right now

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

We’ve all probably heard of and even referenced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point. Given the state of the world — and the results starting to come in from our latest polling — it’s worth a deep dive.

The chart above lays out the Maslow framework.

What can this tell us about what Americans are experiencing right now, and what it means for a corporation’s ability to define and leverage its ESG story?

1. We just can’t be the environmental action-takers that we may want to be when we’re worried about meeting our basic needs. 

We fielded a "mini" study in May to go through some of our standard Pulse questions we’ve been asking for the last 14 years to determine how the pandemic might be impacting beliefs and expectations.

It’s clear in our data that Americans feel less able to self-actualize for the environment because they’re panicked about meeting their safety and physiological needs. The top two worries we have — by far — according to our recent polling are the health of the economy and disease outbreaks.

Introduce a pandemic that threatens our ability to earn a living and keep our families and ourselves safe, and environmental issues take a back seat.
Although we still care about climate change and plastics in the ocean, those numbers came down precipitously from when we asked them pre-pandemic, in late February. In February, our concern about climate change and plastics in the ocean was exactly where it had been when we asked it in summer of 2019. Introduce a pandemic that threatens our ability to earn a living and keep our families and ourselves safe, and environmental issues take a back seat.

This is also true for our ability to take action and our ability to "create" ourselves as environmentally friendly action takers.

  • Pre-pandemic, 41 percent of Americans wanted to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products. In the middle of the pandemic, that number has come down to 33 percent.
  • Pre-pandemic, 27 percent of us felt as if we personally could do something about the plastic waste crisis. Today, only 18 percent of us feel that way.

Now, in some cases we literally can’t take the actions we used to take — bringing one’s own bags to the grocery store has been temporarily banned in some places.

But this is also truly about self-actualization and Maslow’s framework. We just can’t spend the energy to create ourselves, our actions, our lives as environmental stewards when all that energy is being taken up with worry about finances and health.

2. Americans need to hear from companies such as yours what you’re doing to help people — your employees, your communities and those affected by the pandemic and economic downturn — and to keep us all safe now and in the future. 

Our polling reveals that Americans are hearing less about every environmental issue we track — less on the news, less on social media, less in advertising, less from friends. That needs to change. Climate change is the next big health issue and economic issue.

Companies, governments and the news media need to continue their efforts to both solve for and communicate about these issues, the actions being taken and what’s needed from every individual on the planet.

More than ever, though, Americans want to hear what companies are doing to make our society better.
More than ever, though, Americans want to hear what companies are doing to make our society better. The environment is one piece of that — in fact, environmental protection, fair wages and employee health and well-being are all tied for first place of things Americans expect companies to take a stand on. And we do expect companies to take a stand:
  • 69 percent of us expect companies to take a stand for social issues — up from 62 percent in 2018.

But the communications and stories they most want to hear from companies about right now are how they’re taking care of their employees, followed by how they’re helping others through the pandemic and how they’re addressing human health and wellness.

This is Maslow’s framework extrapolated out to society — we need reassurance that companies are meeting society’s safety and physiological needs before we can hear stories about a company’s broader vision, purpose and brand (brand being synonymous with self-actualization for a company).

So, stay the course on your environmental and social strategies and action plans. Communicate first and frequently about what you’re doing to help people, employees and communities right now, then follow that with how you plan to help people/employees/communities forever more via your environmental and social commitments. That will help you build real, meaningful connections with your stakeholders and position your brand as a leader and problem solver for the long haul.

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