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Sustainability – The Shift from We to Me

Originally published in MeatingPlace

Each Friday from late March to mid-June, I had the pleasure of hosting a live CFI webcast with consumer insight experts who have unpacked and analyzed consumer behavior, attitudes and trends in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

While the jury is still out on exactly which changes are short-term and which ones will last, there are some clear trends emerging, and one is a shift in consumer priorities for sustainability. Safety and security now trump concern over climate change, packaging, pesticide use and other issues that topped the list pre-pandemic.

Consumer anxiety over the impact of the novel coronavirus has shifted the discussion from broader social concerns to issues more personal and immediate – a shift from “we” to “me.”

Our lives have been disrupted by the pandemic and the resulting angst has impacted our individual sense of well-being, with many thinking something like, “I knew nothing about the coronavirus and it upended my life and put my family at risk. What else is in the environment that I don’t know about that could harm me or my family? What can I control to make me feel less anxious?”

The one thing each of us can control is what we eat and drink.

The research is indicating a growing interest in enhancing immune health through diet, which is likely to include adding foods perceived to promote health and reducing or eliminating those believed to have a negative health impact. That list could include everything from salty snacks and sweet treats to red meat and highly processed food. It is also likely to include ingredients like added sugar, preservatives, and other processing agents, as well as production tools used in agriculture like GMOs, crop protection chemicals, antibiotics and hormones. Consumers may feel reassured by choosing food they believe enhance their immune system and well-being.

Conversely, products that help protect us are now being viewed more positively, if not essential. Plastic grocery sacks and single use plastic food containers and utensils help limit our contact with others and the potential spread of disease and are no longer in the sustainability bullseye…at least for now.

What are the three things those in food and agriculture can do to adapt to shifting sustainability priorities?

  1. Make it personal. Consumers are more concerned about their personal well-being today than they were pre-pandemic. You should be, too. Tout whatever health or immune benefits you offer. Demonstrate what your products/brands/organization are doing to enhance consumer safety, security, and well-being, including emotional well-being. There is a place for salty snacks and sweet treats in providing a sense of normalcy and comfort. Whatever you do, make absolutely certain your engagement is authentic. Phony compassion is offensive and alienating.
  2. Tie the personal to broader social concerns. The pandemic will come to an end, and concerns over issues like climate change are not going away. This is a unique opportunity to redefine some products that can increase a personal sense of well-being today and address broader long-term social concerns. Case in point, single use plastic. Today, those products enhance food safety and public health. Now is the time to promote advanced recycling and circular solutions to demonstrate a commitment to environmental sustainability as well.
  3. Optimize sustainability. Newton was right. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. You cannot make a decision that impacts one variable in the food system without accounting for the impact on other variables. As we transition from these tumultuous times to whatever lies ahead, there are likely to be many and varied demands for a sustainable food system. Before making commitments, take the time to understand the implications, and assure your decision aligns with your values, business objectives and ability to implement.

Consumers are quickly forging a new path forward that is focused on safety and security. Now is the time to provide the reassurance consumers need, while recognizing that long-term sustainability priorities will still be important to consumers and the brands that serve them as we emerge from the pandemic.

Charlie Arnot
CEO, The Center for Food Integrity