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The state of sustainability during COVID-19 in the food industry

As more consumers have shown concern for the environmental footprint of their food in recent years, businesses have taken notice. In a survey of senior executives at consumer packaged goods companies, a majority of respondents reported that corporate sustainability efforts improved revenue and customer loyalty. The National Restaurant Association’s 2018 sustainability report noted environmental sustainability as one of the top menu trends for the year.

This trend is expected to be long-lasting, and consumers are still focused on sustainability even during the coronavirus pandemic. CPG products that touted their sustainable aspects experienced a 56% boost in sales in the second week of March -- when consumer stockpiling of essential items was especially high, according to data from market research firm IRI and the University of New York Stern Center for Sustainable Business. This suggests the pandemic has not affected shoppers’ desire for sustainably produced food. 

Foodservice industry prioritizes waste reduction, robust supply chains

International restaurant chain Nando’s is one of many foodservice businesses committed to delivering quality food that is also made sustainably. These commitments include sourcing chicken from local poultry providers for its US locations. Because of these sustainable supply chain models, Nando’s was able to continue to meet consumer demand when the pandemic reached the US while still maintaining the company’s sustainable operations, according to Nando’s USA spokesperson Sepanta Bagherpour. Nando’s signature PERi-PERi chicken also requires the African Bird’s Eye chillies grown in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

“Besides giving farmers access to the latest farming techniques, quality seedlings and finance, we also give them a fixed outlet for their crop, commit to a predictable demand, and provide a premium for every kilogram of chillies harvested,” said Bagherpour.  “It’s the ultimate sustainability model.”

The coronavirus pandemic has also created challenges for the food industry in terms of consumer waste. Many foodservice operators had large amounts of food that would go to waste during state-mandated lockdowns and decreased customer traffic -- Nando’s quickly pivoted to ensure their excess food didn’t go to waste. Since March 26, the business has donated and distributed over 100,000 meals to health care workers, Nando’s employees and other out-of-work restaurant industry workers for free, Bagherpour noted.

“Our customers care about the source of their food, and that doesn’t change during a pandemic … Customers care about quality and sustainability, but their top priority now, understandably, is our health and safety protocols -- and that’s our top concern, too.” added Bagherpour.

New York’s The Oberon Group comprises food, beverage and hospitality businesses that operate as carbon-neutral or carbon-negative establishments. The group’s supply chain management focuses on carbon drawdown measures and regenerative agriculture, and the packaging at all businesses is upcycled, compostable or recyclable. While operating during coronavirus-related shutdowns has been difficult, Oberon has found ways to navigate the obstacles.

“COVID-19 undeniably impacted our ability to operate,” said Halley Chambers, deputy director of The Oberon Group. “However, with such a clear central mission, making decisions about how and what to serve is actually easier, because it needs to align with our long-term goals.”

When takeout and delivery orders exploded at the beginning of the pandemic, Oberon’s natural wine bar Rhodora and catering company Purslane already had models in place that ensured zero-waste production, such as serving to-go beverages in reusable containers that consumers can keep and only using recyclable, compostable or reusable materials for food takeout. The group is also providing local compost services, which isn’t currently available to New York City residents, said Chambers.

Even during the pandemic, The Oberon Group has launched sustainability programming via the Rhodora and Purslane social media accounts -- bringing information and conversation to people outside of the industry. 

“This has allowed us to connect with a breadth of people, industries, and leaders, and to really show the connections between, and strength of, a truly sustainable economy in which businesses are focused on sustainability goals, alongside traditional profit motives,” said Chambers.

Increased CPG demand highlights need for systemic change

The demand for essential items at retail this spring caused CPG supply chain strains across companies. But, those pandemic-related challenges largely didn’t disrupt manufacturers' sustainability efforts -- in fact, the pandemic has actually brought to light the urgency of sustainability issues in the industry.

“COVID-19 and the increasing threat of climate change is further bringing to light the importance of building resilience and sustainable practices into the global food supply,” said Roberta Barbieri, vice president of sustainability at PepsiCo.

Even during the new normal as a result of the pandemic, PepsiCo is still developing and testing new container technologies, such as compostable snack packaging, enzymatic recycling technology and the recently revealed paper-based bottle, according to Barbieri. Sustainable agriculture practices are just as important with increased demand during the pandemic; Barbieri also shared that PepsiCo is deploying technology to collect and analyze crop data.

“While our global food system was under pressure before COVID-19, those pressures are even greater now,” said Barbieri. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and the pandemic has brought into even sharper focus the need for collective action and bold steps to address long-term sustainability challenges.”

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