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The global coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to everyday life in an unprecedented way. And whilst many aspects will eventually return to “normal” – or at least some version of – others may have a more significant impact.
When it comes to the environment, it appears to be a mixed bag. On a large scale, with cars off the streets, people around the world have remarked on the improvement in air quality, and local wildlife seems to be having a field day. But on a smaller scale, plastic pollution has increased as people turn to packaged foods, takeaway waste has risen dramatically, and new laws – such as the nationwide ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds – have been delayed owing to the challenges that firms are facing in the current climate.
So how is Coronavirus impacting individual business’ environmental efforts in the food and drink industry? Some companies are giving the green light to new launches and initiatives in an effort to continue with or even ramp up their sustainability efforts. But for others, where 2019 was all about sustainability, 2020 is more about survival.
Anya Doherty is the founder of food sustainability consultant Foodsteps, which offers carbon footprint assessments and carbon labels to food businesses such as cafeterias and restaurants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Anya has seen business dwindle during the pandemic as companies reprioritise or simply focus on keeping up with high demand. Yet there are still those companies that have realised the golden opportunity that the lockdown has presented.
“We’ve seen quite a split in the COVID-19 response to sustainability among our clients and contacts,” Anya told us. “Some are overwhelmed with our priorities and sustainability has fallen down the list, while others (who perhaps are less badly affected by the situation) seem to be wanting to use this ‘down-time’ as a way to focus even more on sustainability.
“With the strange situation everyone finds themselves in, some companies are overly busy (delivery or food box companies, for example), and others have furloughed everyone to shut up shop. Those types of businesses have dropped off the map for us.
“On the flip side, places that are perhaps not too busy or are weathering the storm (such as university caterers), know they’ll reopen again at some point, and are probably used to seasonal variation – those are the places that have taken this as a chance to take stock of their wider strategy. Sustainability has been taking off in the last couple of years, so they see this as an opportunity whilst they’re not so busy to work on that.”
At the beginning of lockdown, Anya admits that it didn’t feel right to approach businesses that were at risk of closing to encourage them to conduct a carbon footprint assessment. Whilst she has had some interest over the last six weeks or so, the majority of her clients have other fish to fry.
“Even places that had goals in place that they wanted to meet by the end of 2020 in regards to plastic waste or recycling have been disrupted, because no one is really working on those strategies. Maybe they think that when they [resume normal operations], they’ll sort out those problems, but only later down the line can they think about taking those sustainability strategies a step further.”
So what impact is this likely to have on the food sector in the future?
“I don’t think the impetus around sustainability will change – if anything, this crisis will show us that it’s more important to act preemptively rather than waiting for things to rip through the population. My main concern is around the money for paying for things like sustainability consulting, and I do think for us it’s hard to go to a place that might have had to lay off staff and now ask for them to pay for a carbon assessment – how can they justify that? It’s more the wider economic picture that’s concerning in terms of business having extra money to spend on consulting to reduce their emissions.”
Monitoring consumer habits
When it comes to sustainability efforts, a large portion of progress is determined by consumer demand. And whilst some shoppers are simply keen to get their hands on whatever items they can – whether it’s flour in plastic carrier bags or produce contained in plastic boxes – many consumers are still concerned about the environmental impact of their shopping choices. And it’s their behaviour that could lead to changes in the future.
We were already seeing shifts prior to the outbreak. In 2019, 74% of UK consumers surveyed said they would prefer to shop at a retailer that offers loose fruit and vegetables, according to leading data and analytics company, GlobalData. Whilst the increased desire to make eco-conscious choices was a positive step, today the priority of health over the environment has taken precedence. As the spread of COVID-19 slows, we could see sustainability slowly work its way to the front of people’s minds once again, though this may be a balancing act between people’s increased awareness of cleanliness and hygiene coupled with a desire to be environmentally friendly.
One area where progress is being made is with companies where sustainability was built into their ethos. For businesses such as Lost Sheep Coffee, a sustainable speciality coffee roastery based in Kent, and organic farm delivery service Riverford, it’s been about continuing with and even increasing their messaging, fully aware that their customers are likely to be making more efforts at the moment to reduce their environmental impact.
Riverford has rerouted rounds to reduce food miles to an increased number of deliveries, and is primarily offering set veg boxes rather than ‘build your own’ orders. This refined range means a little less flexibility for some customers, but allows the company to discuss with its customers the key issues that are at the heart of the business: eating seasonally, reducing food waste and less packaging.
Lost Sheep Coffee meanwhile has launched all of its whole bean and ground coffee in new fully recyclable packaging since lockdown.
“From a sustainability point of view, the pandemic has not affected our plans, and we aim to maintain the initiatives that we already have in place,” Stuart Wilson, founder of Lost Sheep Coffee, said. “As a business, we’re committed to delivering the best quality hand roasted speciality grade coffee, while ensuring the lowest possible impact on the environment. We do it because we can and want to do it; it’s not the cheapest way to do things but it’s the right way to do things. We need to ensure we don’t lose sight of what’s important during these tough times: the way our customers buy and interact with us may have changed, but our customers have not; their principles and expectations are still the same.”
Whilst it’s understandable that some businesses would be halting any and all eco-progress at the moment, for business owners like Stuart, it’s about thinking of the future: “Undoubtedly some businesses are fighting for survival, and it’s understandable why they would look at saving every single penny. But those with their eye on the long-term will be committed to existing eco-conscious goals, and will realise that saving a little now may cost them a customer in the long run, a customer that no business can afford to lose right now.”
Businesses like Lost Sheep Coffee are also banking on the sustainability trend growing in the future as concerns over our own health and that of the environment collide.
“I think that consumers will continue to be increasingly eco-conscious and, now more than ever, will be expecting more for their money. Plant-based food and drink is only going to become more essential as people aim to live cleaner and eat healthier. With the economic backdrop, quality over quantity, and the need to be more resourceful and reduce waste are key drivers for the customer.”
As lockdown slowly lifts across the UK and retailers and brands begin to settle into a new rhythm, it could be the perfect opportunity to reassess their environmental impact. What’s more, with people expected to begin using this slower way of life as a time to consider these issues and make more informed choices, food and drink businesses may begin to look at what sustainable solutions they can offer to customers now and in the future.