( Photo by The Packer staff )

“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.”

Borrowing those lyrics from “Getting Better” by The Beatles, the produce industry is getting better all the time. 

Progress marches on for the industry, and a topic like sustainability is a good example. Every trade show over the past several years seemed to reveal new, more sustainable packaging from produce marketers.

But suddenly the industry’s attention on continuous improvement has wavered. The COVID-19 crisis refocused operators on simply surviving. Full steam ahead on plastics, recyclable or not!

I recently asked members of the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group this question:

“How will the COVID-19 pandemic/economic slump influence progress toward sustainability goals in the produce industry?” 

Here are excerpts from a couple of comments:

  • “From a packaging perspective we are going to see a rise in single-serve and more packaging versus less (at least short-term.) And, with the drop in oil prices and decrease in recycling as a result of COVID, the price difference in virgin and recycled plastics will increase. With that said, every single day I discuss sustainable packaging projects with brands who are just as passionate now as they were several months ago.”
  • “If there has been a time to think sustainable, it is now. (I) don’t see it any other way.”

From all reports, COVID-19 has spurred more consumer purchases of packaged produce. In fact, 50% of consumers polled in mid-May for the Produce Marketing Association’s “U.S. Consumer Sentiment During the Coronavirus Crisis” indicated they would be more likely to buy produce now if it came in “sealed containers or bags.”

That sentiment in favor of packaged over bulk could be a fleeting, misplaced sense of safety that will only be evident during the COVID-19 crisis. The move toward packaged produce also likely reflects a desire to pick up maximum produce in minimum time, and/or to buy in bigger volumes for cost savings.

Economic loss and damage caused by the COVID-19 crisis is also important to consider. 

More than one in six people age 18-29 have stopped working since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to a United Nations report. In addition, young people who had remained employed during the pandemic had seen their working hours fall by 23%, according to the report. 

The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2020 survey, polling more than 1,000 consumers, found 12% of 18- to 39-year olds seek out companies that are environmentally active, compared with 8% of those 40-49, 7% for those 50-58, and 5% of those 59 and older.

Fresh Trends found that 50% of consumers 18-39 rated biodegradable packaging as the most important practice to promote sustainability. The paradox is that young people have been hurt the most by the economic crisis, and they also care the most about sustainable values. How that translates to future shopping behavior is hard to predict.

Despite the jarring interruption of the COVID-19 crisis, the industry must continue on the path toward “getting better,” whether in sustainable packaging, social responsibility or environmental stewardship. 

Tom Karst is The Packer’s editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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