Most of us have worked a lot of our life achieving, or attempting to achieve, more leisure time with less effort. Brands have been helping us do this with their products and in various other ways, be they appliances, food packaging types, or retail. And for my generation, Generation X, and generations after, this is all we’ve ever known growing up.

We’ve endeavored to do less with more. But is this really convenient?

As our environments have become more urban and our civilizations have grown, the vast majority of people have evolved away from producing any of their own food. We rely on other people’s efforts to provide us with food in convenient ways. From fast-food restaurants and snacks on-the-go, to grabbing handfuls of non-seasonal food from around the globe at our local grocery store. But, the irony is that while it is convenient for us as consumers, it still requires lots of effort, hard work, and some might argue, decidedly non-convenient work, by other people to produce that food and that convenience.

So let’s unpack “convenience.” 

Are there any situations in which the individual consumer’s convenience is a part of a bigger, systematic convenience? Or, is it that while consumer convenience is the end goal that this effort towards convenience necessitates increased complexity and increased effort from anyone and anything else involved in the whole system?

For example, as our food system has evolved, the aspiration of convenience has introduced tremendous amounts of complexity, not to mention phenomenal amounts of material waste. This is easily seen with the advent of things like single-serve bottles for water, single-serve snacks, fast food, and in other individualized utensils or packaged goods for consumption. And while we’re mainly talking about food, the food system and food packaging here, the effect of sectors like consumer electronics and the various devices we use to access convenience in an instant also cannot be overlooked, especially when we are caught up in a constant upgrade culture. We’ve exchanged convenience in the form of the services they provide with exposing private data, our whereabouts and our preferences.

Look at the popularity of cars: even in areas where public transportation is readily available like New York City or most other metropolitan urban areas, taking a car is always seen as much much more convenient. And, many would agree cars have more negative impact on the environment comparatively.

We have conflated convenience with saving time. 

What convenience has actually bought us is the ability to take on more tasks and more things to deal with and worry about, all in the same 24 hours we’ve always had. Convenience has never bought us time. We have not exchanged the time we’re saving with time spent on leisure activities, necessarily. We all work longer hours now— more so than ever before in history. A recent Pew Research survey revealed about a third of polled workers say they work more than 40 hours a week now since working remotely, as the lines have blurred between work and our personal lives.

Do we really believe that more convenience in our lives means more convenience for everyone involved? When we ask for more convenience, are we actually asking for someone else to do more work so that we can do less?

Maybe it’s time for us to realize that’s exactly what we’re doing. 

And maybe it’s time for brands to start thinking differently as well. More brands we work with have, “make sure this is convenient for consumers” as a part of the brief. Sure, we should be solving for things that don’t make our lives more difficult. We should be reducing the barrier for products to be a part of our lifestyle, but also not introducing global barriers.

Convenience needs to be reframed.

Brands have a duty to start retraining what convenience is for consumers. Redefining shopping experiences, providing more product origin information and closed loop returns in-store are some ways. Many retailers are already plugged into the fact that they are competing with e-tail, so are committed to changing what shopping IRL means. 

More and more retailers are becoming curators of sustainable goods, raising standards for products and their supply chains, too, like REI’s Product Impact Standards or Whole Foods’ Quality Standards that have been around for a while. And, actually these curated brands means a new kind of convenience for consumers that they may not have known they needed— a way to reduce shopping stress, knowing the brands you’re buying are already doing good for the planet. You don’t have to do the research, because it’s been done and put right in front of you. Include initiatives like FairTrade and other fair work and labor efforts, and you have the potential for a full-scale universal convenience.

Government policy is being made, too, like France, who, by 2030 is stating that, “20% of the floor surface of shops larger than 400 square metres must be fitted with refill systems.” And, in Germany, at Kaufland, they’re trialing packaging-free sections of the store. So consumers’ notion of what is convenient will be forced to change anyway.

Taking the context above and building a simple equation, we can net out where actually convenience:

  • Equals waste in terms of materials used;
  • Equals waste in terms of effort put forth;
  • Equals waste for the sake of convenience.

Let’s reframe it so convenience actually means:

  • Less waste and reduced footprint due to easily reusable or returnable packaging; 
  • Everyone in the chain feels the benefit of a form of convenience, no matter their function (no strained delivery times, no overtime to get a normal day’s work in);
  • Surplus of time and effort to spend on our lives in the ways we want to.

By shifting our expectations, we push the boundaries of what convenience can mean. We must move from an exploitative system into a regenerative one; shattering the current collective illusion of convenience and shifting to truly sustainable solutions for the benefit of people and the world at large.