Companies will need to find solutions that do not require consumers to make difficult choices that often leave them feeling guilty, says Steven Van Belleghem.
As consumers, we are pretty used to making choices. When we’re making buying decisions we’re not only weighing up what products look and feel like, but also wider moral issues. Do you want privacy or convenience? Do you want cheap products or ethically manufactured products? Do you want personal freedoms in parts of your life such as diet and travel, or is it more important to be doing good for the planet?
How heavy is your suitcase?
The reality is that the world is full of trade-offs. If we opt for an advantage, we usually have to accept that there is a compensatory disadvantage somewhere down the line. Not necessarily for ourselves, but often for others or for society as a whole. For example, we might opt to fly to South America for an unforgettable holiday experience, or, knowing that air travel is the cause of so much environmental damage, we could pick a destination closer to home that is reachable by train, but perhaps doesn’t offer the same holiday of a lifetime.
In the coming decade, we will see an evolution that will reduce the number of trade-offs or perhaps even make some of them disappear altogether. This is a trend you can already see with some of the smaller trade-offs – even removing the guilt over baggage handlers having to deal with heavy luggage.
Delta Air Lines is currently testing exoskeletons for its baggage personnel. An exoskeleton is a robot suit that you wear like a backpack, but one that gives you robot-like strength. Thanks to these suits, the handlers can work with heavier luggage without any negative effects on their health. Back at the start of 2020, I was able to try one of these Delta Air Lines robot suits. They put a case weighing 30 kilograms in front of me. I could hardly lift it until the exoskeleton suit was activated. Then I could lift it effortlessly. It felt as though I was lifting a sheet of paper! Very impressive.
Fireworks going without a bang?
Another example of a trade-off is firework displays. Most people (me included) like to see fireworks, preferably accompanied by some great music. As a Disney fan, finishing off a day in the Magic Kingdom by watching some fantastic pyrotechnics accompanied by some equally fantastic Disney songs is my idea of heaven. Unfortunately, animals are not such big fans of fireworks. Horses, cows and dogs are all frightened by the succession of loud bangs and can sometimes be aggressive as a result. We humans love the spectacle, but the animals hate it: a classic trade-off.
However, there is a strong likelihood that by 2030 there will be far fewer traditional firework displays. Many of them will be replaced by drone shows. Thousands of light-emitting drones will offer us a new kind of sound and light experience. These small drones come in all shapes and sizes and can be used in combination to create figures that can tell a story, all to the accompaniment of appropriate music. Okay, it is not exactly the same as a firework show, as true fireworks lovers will be quick to point out, but it is an interesting and viable alternative that will save a lot of animal suffering. Drone shows clearly have the potential to eliminate this trade-off. The aim – as is the case for the elimination of all trade-offs – is to allow people to enjoy products and services without feeling guilty.
Emerging technologies eliminating trade offs
Like the drones, general purpose technologies such as AI, 5G, quantum computing and robotics, all have the potential to eliminate many of today’s trade-offs. For instance, over the last year we have seen how they already allow us to better organise virtual meetings, which in due course will structurally reduce the amount of business travel, with a positive impact on the climate as a result.
Another very topical example we have seen over the last year is people working in the health sector, directly caring for sick people. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that this often results in a trade-off between caring for the patient and caring for the carer.
In the future, AI-operated robots will be able to carry out many of the tasks currently performed by human doctors and nurses. Similarly, 5G will make it possible for patients to be more effectively examined at distance, or even for surgeons to perform operations at distance. In this way, the new technologies will make it feasible to provide top-quality medical care, while simultaneously decreasing the risk to medical personnel.
The curse of perfection
Too many companies are frightened by the curse of perfection. Sometimes someone will have a brilliant idea to help elimate an ethical trade off and improve the world, but the company hesitates to implement it because it is not yet fully in line its purpose statement. But if your company takes an active role in the solving of problems, there is a good chance that you will be able to stand out from the crowd.
In the Netherlands, the Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate brand is very popular. Without actively advertising, the brand has captured a large share of the Dutch chocolate market within just 15 years.
The basis for this success is Tony’s Chocolonely’s unique positioning: it claims to sell 100 per cent slave-free chocolate. Many of the traditional chocolate brands buy cacao from farms where child labour is still used. Tony’s Chocolonely buys its cacao beans directly from small-scale farmers in Africa, allowing it to make good its claim that its chocolate is completely slave-free. It has taken a real-world problem that it wants to tackle and has made its action clear to people in a tangible way.
Nevertheless, the company is regularly attacked in the Dutch media. Every so often, people emerge with ‘evidence’ that the chocolate is not 100 per cent slave-free. Yet even if this is true, it does nothing to detract from the company’s many genuine efforts to achieve its goal. Tony’s Chocolonely is not perfect, but it focuses attention on a serious problem – child labour – and makes a positive contribution to improve it, which, thankfully, is appreciated by a large section of the market.
The moral of the story? Always strive for perfection but don’t be frightened or ashamed if you haven’t yet achieved it. Because you never will. Perfection is an illusion. Concentrate instead on the positive impact your company can have in saving the world, and in eliminating the ethical trade-offs that your customers face.