Has Sustainability Become a Sacrificial Lamb to Safety in our Food System?

As every news outlet tells us – we’re in unprecedented times. Consumers’ behaviors and values have all been impacted by this pandemic; and one key truth seems to reign above the rest. We’re looking for feelings of safety and control in a world gone crazy. With safety as a fundamental value in our decision-making, have we left some other values behind – or, at the very least, deprioritized them? This is certainly open for debate when looking at safety priorities in our food system.

Here are the facts. 

The way we buy food is different. The way we expect our food to be packaged is different. The convenience of delivery and/or car-side pickup is now a must-have for both restaurants and grocery stores. There’s a common thread among all these new foods trends. More (dare we say, excessive?) food packaging.

Walk the aisles and produce sections of the grocery store and you can see a sizable increase in the amount of safety-centric food packaging. Plastic coatings promise pathogen-protection to uneasy shoppers – at least to the shoppers still willing to venture to the grocery stores themselves. According to McKinsey, consumer packaging demand has shifted drastically in the food area. Consumers continue to move to grocery purchases with packaging that demonstrably addresses hygiene and safety concerns. It’s just one of the ways consumers have shifted their values towards safety at the expense of sustainability.

Consider the rapid adoption of “click and collect” grocery shopping. With consumers’ high expectations of the appearance and condition of the items they collect – and retailers’ need to separate all loose items with tiny plastic bags for each variety of fruit and veggie – we have another major instance of sustainability taking a backseat to packaging for desired safety and convenience.

Finally, consider how many added layers of packaging are required when you take your restaurant order to-go? How much more packaging is added when you grocery shop through Amazon? Does the guilt of our environmental impact take a back seat when we seek safety in the here and now?

Does this mean we’ve deprioritized sustainability?

You may think all signs point to yes. But consumers are telling us otherwise – they actually want sustainability as much as safety…they just aren’t being offered it. So, they want brands, restaurants and retailers to make the change – and fast!

According to a study from Nielsen in 2018, less than half of U.S. consumers were likely to change what they buy to align with environmental standards. But in April 2020, a survey conducted by consulting firm Kearney and published by FoodDive, found that 80% of consumers consider the environmental impacts of their purchases and want to do more.

So, what does this mean for food companies trying to navigate consumers’ desire for both safety and sustainability? There needs to be a better way and consumers are already onboard. At Padilla, we recommend our food clients consider the following:

If you are looking for ways to better incorporate sustainability practices into your business plans, Padilla can help – contact our Food + Beverage team here.

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