A recent study from business consultant Accenture found that concern had only been heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in an increase in what it called “conscious consumption” – greater consideration by shoppers of the environmental and societal impacts of what they put in their baskets.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of consumers are focusing on limiting food waste, for example, while two-thirds (66%) say they are making more sustainable choices when shopping. Jill Standish, head of Accenture’s global retail industry group, says: “People’s values are increasingly becoming infused in their shopping habits as consumers think more about balancing what they buy with global issues of sustainability. This calls for retailers to be authentic and to pay attention to what each community they serve really cares about.”

Dangers ahead

Suppliers too are increasingly focusing on sustainability as they try to retain their appeal to this ever-increasing market. “It is no longer a specialist minority shopping community that cares about sustainability,” says Mark Jankovich, chief executive at cleaning products supplier Delphis Eco. “The public as a whole has woken up to what we are doing to our environment and the dangers ahead.”

Bryan Martins, marketing and category director at Ecotone UK, owner of Whole Earth spreads and Clipper tea, argues that the pandemic gave people “more time and opportunity to spend reconnecting with nature”. He says: “It has helped people to notice the difference humans can make to the planet, such as not driving as much. Spending more time at home has also allowed shoppers to better understand recycling – how quick and easy it is, but most importantly the positive impact it can have.”

Clare Bolland, marketing manager for rubber glove brand Marigold, says shoppers are adopting a number of different measures to help them become more sustainable, such as cutting down on single-use plastics. In response, many brands and suppliers have made steps towards becoming more sustainable, such as removing or reducing the amount of plastic packaging or creating new packaging from recyclable materials.

Plastic reduction

In April this year, Molson Coors Beverage Company removed all plastic rings from its Coors Light and Carling multi-packs and replaced them with fully recyclable and sustainable cardboard sleeves. Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), meanwhile, made the move to produce its entire bottle portfolio with 50% recyclable plastic.

“All our bottles have been 100% recyclable for many years and with this achievement we’ve doubled our rPET usage too,” says Amy Burgess, senior trade communications manager at CCEP. In 2020, Whole Earth removed the plastic tamper seal from all its peanut butter jars – approximately 9.5 million of which are sold annually. Martins from Ecotone says its new paper lollypop design has the same function, but without the plastic. The company has also developed what it says is the first biodegradable, non-GM and unbleached heat-sealed tea bag for Clipper Tea.

Weetabix Food Group has reduced its plastic use by 6% in the last year, says John Petre, supply chain and technical director for the company’s Sustainability Steering Group, with 92% of its packaging now fully recyclable. The company has saved 24 tonnes of plastic per year by rolling out smaller wrappers for its Alpen Light bars and has reduced the amount of plastic in its Weetabix cereal wrappers by 28%.

Carbon footprint

As well as finding alternative packaging solutions, many suppliers are focusing on reducing their carbon footprint. In October 2020, wine brand Banrock Station launched a flat bottle made from 100% recycled plastic, for the “growing number of consumers looking to make more sustainable product purchases”. The 750ml bottle requires 75% less energy to produce and emits 79% less carbon dioxide than virgin plastic.

Cider brand Thatchers recently completed its new warehouse, featuring 1,320 solar panels that it says helped save some 75,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide in 2020, the equivalent of planting 3,500 trees. Gary Delafield, supply chain director at Thatchers Cider, says: “Our 500 acres of orchards lock up approximately 182 tonnes of carbon each year and all the electricity we receive comes from renewable sources. Pomace – apple waste left over after pressing – goes to good use, either for cattle feed or anaerobic digestion.”

Food waste

Graeme McCracken, managing director at agricultural data company Proagrica, says consumers have been making lifestyle changes to reduce food waste since the start of the pandemic. “Almost two-thirds (63%) say they are more likely to shop more often and in smaller quantities, to avoid having to throw away unwanted or spoiled food.

“A similar number (67%) are now likely to buy more frozen food for the same reason, and three-quarters (76%) suggest they are prepared to buy the ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables that so often sit unwanted on the supermarket shelf.”But this is not always easy to do in practice. A recent study from Lumina Intelligence discovered several barriers to reducing household food waste, including sell-by dates that were too short (45%), food and drink pack sizes are too large (34%), and a lack of time to plan meals in advance (24%).

Refill stations

Alice Dolling, insight lead at Lumina Intelligence, says retailers and suppliers can “directly support in breaking down these barriers, and simultaneously demonstrate their own sustainability values”. Having a balance of fresh food and longer shelf-life products is “essential” in convenience stores, she says, as “consumers shop less frequently and undertake bigger, more planned baskets”. Self-serve refill stations are also “becoming increasingly common and help customers address food waste, packaging and budget concerns”.

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