5.1 Consumers have enormous economic power. The challenge is how to channel this towards sustainable outcomes
Global extraction of raw materials continues to accelerate rapidly. Global plastics production remains unsustainably high.
The number of overweight and obese people continues to rise, while the number of malnourished people has stopped declining.
Regulations to discourage the use of plastics have been proliferating. The plastics industry and their political allies have used COVID-19 to make the case for single-use plastics as a sanitary option. This has resulted in several plastics bans being delayed.
Airline-passenger numbers in Sweden were falling long before the pandemic.
Flygskam or “flight shame” has travelled beyond Sweden, becoming flugscham in German, lentohapea in Finnish and vliegschaamte in Dutch. It has also inspired a spinoff Swedish expression: tågskryt, or “train brag”, for when someone shows off about their virtuous, rail-based holidays.
5.2 Will the pandemic change consumer attitudes to sustainability?
The share of US citizens expressing sustainable views has risen by half in the past decade. More people believe that environmental protection is more important than economic growth.
Unprecedented declines in living standards due to the pandemic may affect consumer preferences in ways that are hard to predict.
Seasonally adjusted annualised rate
Young Britons are more likely to say that climate change is more serious than COVID-19. Most people globally say that climate change is as serious as COVID-19.
Excluding undecideds and don’t-knows
Consumers are closely watching how companies respond to the pandemic, while websites such as DidTheyHelp.com are tracking which firms behaved in a sustainable way.
Excluding undecideds and don't-knows
The pandemic may reset consumer expectations and behaviours in ways that could (with policy support) become more permanent. Well-being is increasingly understood to be about more than consumption and materialism, once basic needs have been met. It opens up new opportunities to align individual behaviour with planetary boundaries.
This is fertile ground for new consumer trends. The potential will only be realised, however, through further innovation by businesses supported by robust policy frameworks. In the short term, there is a risk that we witness something of a consumerist frenzy as the lockdown is relaxed.
Before the pandemic there were early signs of a structural shift in consumers’ preferences. In the face of an era of economic upheaval, high unemployment and weak wage growth there are some headwinds to this trend.
Plastics have become something of a test case. A huge shift in public perception had occurred before the pandemic struck. Some in the industry are working hard to make a renewed positive case for plastic, for instance by highlighting its role in personal protective equipment and because of its higher value addition.
The broad commitment to sustainability and climate-sensitive purchases appears robust. The idea that companies with social purpose outperform competitors, especially in times of crisis, has gained currency. Many brands have been pushing further into the realms of purpose and sustainability and they contribute to dealing with the crisis.
During the pandemic, companies have been working together in novel partnerships which include regulators and other stakeholders. We expect these partnerships to lay the ground for longer-term collaboration on other issues.
5.3 Towards an inclusive and resilient transition in food systems
The externalities of food and land systems are not included in market prices
The growth rate of global beef production has sharply slowed in recent years, while plant-based meat is now widely known about.
Precision fermentation, a technology that enables the programming of micro-organisms to produce complex organic molecules, is now cost-effective in food production. Funding to agrifood tech start-ups has risen sharply in recent years.
Even during the pandemic, organic-food sales have continued to rise. The plant-based food market has experienced rapid growth globally. Direct farm-to-consumer programmes is also growing.
Poor areas are much less likely to have farmers markets nearby. But they are much more likely to have a high concentration of fast-food outlets.
North America and Europe account for a disproportionate share of global food waste. Fruits and vegetables are especially likely to go to waste.
In food-importing regions in particular, consumers face a sharp drop in incomes. This will reduce their ability to pay for food. The UN estimates that the economic fallout from COVID-19 could result in the number of people suffering from acute hunger doubling to 265m over the course of this year.
While overall food prices are not spiking, particular countries heavily reliant on certain imports are seeing price spikes. Rice prices have risen globally and India is seeing spikes in a number of food prices, including meat and fish.
In March 2020 UK food banks saw far higher usage than the year before.
Thousands in the US have queued for food banks in recent months.
To help Wonoloers who use our platform respond to COVID-19, we are taking immediate action in three ways: 1. We are expanding our Flex Time Off program to all Wonoloers retroactively. This will preclude Wonoloers, sick or otherwise, from having to face deciding whether to earn a paycheck or go to the doctor. 2. We will pay Wonoloers for up to 14 days of quarantine. 3. We are excusing late withdrawals for sick Wonoloers.
Wonolo, Inc. (March, 2020)
During lockdown, many people have been cooking more, thinking about their connection with food and food systems, and avoiding waste. There has also been a rapid adoption of food-delivery services. These are important entry points for future policy action and for new product innovation.
It is too soon to tell if pre-existing trends in the emergence of healthier diets and plant-based foods will accelerate, but we believe this is the direction of travel. Progress on healthy and sustainable diets is critical for climate action and meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.
We continue to see exciting innovations in sustainable food production, from precision agriculture and aquaculture to novel alternative proteins. However, we would like to see much faster progress in the transition to sustainable food systems at scale, given the impact of agriculture on soil quality, water availability and carbon capture, as well as nutrition.
Collective action is urgently needed to address uneven access to sustainable and affordable diets. Inequality of nutrition is being highlighted by the economic impacts of the pandemic. Poor nutrition will also undermine countries’ attempts to restart their economies as it is critical for worker health, productivity and education.
It has taken the emergence of new private-sector partnerships and government support to keep food retail, restaurants and other food-service industries afloat during lockdown. These new partnerships could form the foundation of a new post-pandemic sustainable food economy.