In 2020, COVID sent us to our rooms to think about what we’d done. Flights were grounded, factories went silent, and human activity slowed to a crawl. The skies cleared over Los Angeles and the Himalayan peaks were visible from India for the first time in decades. Home confinement has a way of focusing the mind and fueling self-reflection. We took stock of our lives, reassessed our priorities, and understood, perhaps for the first time, how fragile our modern way of life truly is. West Coast wildfires and riots born of inequality and injustice added exclamation points to the idea that we needed to mend our ways. It became even clearer that we need to consume differently. 57% of American consumers say they have changed their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact, 70% choose brands based on responsible attributes, and 85% of Gen Z believe brands should be about something more than profit. Consumers demand to know far more about the products they buy. They want to know that products are safe for their families to use or eat, and to understand the impact their purchase decisions have on the environment and on others. They vote with their wallets and buy things that are consistent both with their needs and values. To meet this requirement, shopping technology must evolve rapidly. As a futurist, I find it helpful to imagine experiences of the near future. These “thought prototypes” often take the form of stories. So, if you’re sitting comfortably, let me tell you a story about Gloria and Jenn, two women living in Chicago, IL in the year 2025. Jenn, a successful young graphic designer, lives in West Loop, a hip suburb of Chicago. Jenn is careful about what she eats, exercises regularly, and has grown increasingly concerned about the impact her consumption has on the planet and on people. She prefers to buy local, cares passionately about animal welfare, and supports brands that stand up against child and forced labor. Jenn uses an app on her phone to help her decide which products are right for her. Today, she’s shopping for a new pair of yoga pants. Jenn scans the labels on two pairs of grey yoga pants so she can learn more about them. The first pair is displayed as “green” by the app, meaning that it has a detailed origin story and there is strong evidence that the pants were manufactured in a way that is consistent with the values Jenn expressed as preferences in the app. Jenn clicks through to learn more and watches a cool video that tells her more about the pants. She sees a map showing the location of the factory where they were made together with certification of a recent audit for age-appropriate labor. The other pair of pants are displayed as “yellow.” While they are a little cheaper than the other pair, and come from a reputable brand, they lack detail on where or how they were made. Jenn decides to spend the few dollars extra to feel good about her purchase. Gloria lives in central Chicago. Her teenage daughter Lakeshia is diabetic, and her young son Tyrell has a peanut allergy. Gloria’s primary concern as a mother is to keep her family safe and healthy.
Whenever she buys groceries, Gloria speeds through the store wearing her augmented reality glasses. An app on her glasses knows Gloria’s preferences and as she strolls down each aisle diabetic-friendly products are highlighted while products containing peanuts are marked with a red cross. The app recognizes most products from the packaging using machine vision technology. For produce and some other products she scans a QR code to reveal the information that’s important to her. Gloria picks up a box of cereal she thinks Lakeshia would like and turns it over so her glasses can read the QR code on the back. Information relevant to Gloria appears around the cereal carton which glows green, indicating that it meets Gloria’s needs. She is happy to see the cereal contains no peanuts and wasn’t produced in a factory where peanut contamination could occur. She also notes that the cereal is ok for diabetics. Tyrell will be pleased. The cereal goes into her cart and Gloria feels satisfied that she made a good decision that will keep her family safe. These types of shopping experiences are still science fiction today, but by 2025 they could well be commonplace. With new consumer augmented reality headsets, 5G networks, and widespread provenance and transparency technology, we will all enjoy a new personalized shopping experience. Smart devices will support us, helping us to choose products that better meet our needs and that are consistent with our values. Perhaps the values we rediscovered way back in 2020, when COVID gave us all time to think about what was truly important.