Exploring sustainability in a pandemic

A new research report, Sustainability in a Pandemic, conducted in partnership between C.O. nxt and Menu Matters, has examined aspects of sustainability related to food and assessed how these issues affect consumer purchase behaviour related to food via various distribution channels.

The report finds that the pandemic has not reduced the importance of sustainability — quite the contrary, in fact. Approximately 80% of consumers surveyed indicated that sustainability is important to some degree with over half indicating it is extremely or very important. Furthermore, the only issues that appear to be more important to respondents than sustainability are hygiene and safety related (mask wearing, sanitising, etc.).

Several presentations in last month’s Re:co Symposium (12-13 May) highlighted that consumers, particularly younger demographics, are demanding that companies be more socially and environmentally responsible. The new report delves further revealing that sustainability is increasingly enveloping societal issues such as diversity and welfare issues for both animals and workers. Consumers are generally more concerned now about sustainability, driven by the impact of the pandemic on food workers, climate change overall, and the increased use of single-use disposables.

According to the report, consumers believe it is in a company’s best interest to not make false claims. Consumer demand is strong enough for many products that it behooves a company to create products and services that meet these sustainability demands. Overall, consumers are more likely to trust smaller operators – farmers, manufacturers, restaurants – than larger organisations. Interestingly, per the findings, the media is now the least trusted player in the food system.

Consumers are placing a greater emphasis on specific claims rather than vague, broad claims. Claims reducing the impact of ingredients and specific efforts against animal welfare have the broadest impact.

And while there may be some distrust with larger food organisations, the report states that consumers see manufacturers and restaurants as doing a better job and having a more positive impact on sustainability than before the pandemic. For restaurants, sourcing locally, sourcing sustainable ingredients, providing condiments by request and more efficient to-go packaging are helping to support this positive perception.

Good news for coffee and tea farmers – and farmers overall – the report discovered that consumers across all demographics are more concerned now about farmer’s ability to make a living. The pandemic did shift consumers’ concern over farmer and farm worker safety with over half now more concerned about that versus a year ago, but the more significant shift was in the concern over whether farmers can make a living. See the below graphs from the report in more detail.

Whether ordering directly from a farmer or a manufacturer, consumers generally see it as a more sustainable activity than shopping at retail. Gen Z, Millennials and those placing an emphasis on sustainability are all significantly more likely to pay more. This may help support ongoing sustainability efforts in agriculture, manufacturing, restaurants and the food industry.

So, as consumers increasingly tie sustainability to include economic factors such as fairness in pay and conditions for workers, the report ascertains that companies honestly and actively focusing on these issues may be able to better support price premiums their products may require.

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