Illustration by Kara Pyle
In spite of a recent uptick in single-use products, the research shows that even a global pandemic can’t shake consumers’ desire to make sustainable choices when it comes to food and food packaging. “Conscious consumption was gaining traction before and COVID has only accelerated that,” says analyst Shelley Balanko, senior vice-president at the Hartman Group. “Consumers are looking for foods that are sourced in sustainable ways—and produced and packaged in a way that’s in accordance with their values.”
According to a 2020 U.S. survey by global management consulting firm Kearney, 48% of respondents said the pandemic has made them more concerned about the environment, and 55% said they were now more likely to purchase environmentally-friendly products. The survey also showed an 85% increase in consumers who planned to decline plastic utensils with food orders and a whopping 164% increase in those who were planning to buy more items in bulk.
Whereas shoppers may have focused on sustainable packaging pre-pandemic, Balanko says now that they’ve gotten “up close and personal” with the fact our food supply chain isn’t infinite, they’re also looking at food waste and carbon impact when selecting products. She expects consumers will not only be looking to see if retailers are carrying sustainable brands, but whether they have sustainable programs in place at the store level, too.
Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights, says we can also expect to see some truly innovative developments in packaging coming down the pipe. “Making packaging compostable, biodegradable or easy to recycle will be more and more important going forward,” she says. A good example is SupraPulp, a plastic-free packaging made of sugarcane waste from Israeli food tech startup W-Cycle. Not only is it fully compostable and toxin-free, but it’s durable enough for greasy, wet or hot food and can be frozen or heated.
During these pandemic times especially, Williams says packaging with antimicrobial properties (which can kill foodborne diseases) are gaining particular favour. (A European Union-funded project called NanoPack has already produced one successful option.)
Even big-name brands are looking to mitigate plastic in landfills by turning to more sustainable packaging solutions. This year, Johnnie Walker launched a paper-based whisky bottle, while PepsiCo is using aluminum cans instead of plastic for its Aquafina water brand.
For those retailers still hesitating to implement sustainable programs into their business strategies now, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a U.K.-based charity focused on inspiring a circular economy) estimates that converting just 20% of plastic packing into re-use models (such as refill and return packaging options) is a US$10-billion global opportunity. According to the Foundation’s 2019 Reuse: Rethinking Packaging report, reuse models can cut down on packaging and transportation costs, improve user experience and build loyalty.
Reuse and recycling programs at work
Some of Canada’s grocery giants have already made concerted efforts to go sustainable, especially when it comes to products and packaging. This year, Sobeys released its first sustainability report establishing “key action pillars” of People, Planet and Products to steer its future strategies. Part of that is the commitment to reduce food waste, maximize recycling efforts and make it easier for customers to reuse in general.
The retailer has already introduced reusable mesh produce bags (partially made from recovered plastic found in oceans), in all Sobeys, Safeway, IGA and Foodland stores. It’s also working with Dartmouth, N.S.- based LakeCity Plastics to turn plastic bags into waterfront benches and tables for installation in public spaces across Atlantic Canada. This project will help divert 720,000 plastic bags from landfills.
Last year TerraCycle—a global company that offers free recycling programs funded by brands, manufacturers and retailers—partnered with Loblaw in using its Loop platform, which gives consumers the option to get commonly used products delivered to their door in branded, sustainable packaging that is later collected, cleaned, refilled and reused. “Loblaw is our exclusive grocery retail partner in Canada during the pilot phase ... ultimately, Loop’s goal is to be integrated into as many retailers and channels as possible to make the biggest impact,” says Anthony Rossi, executive vice-president of business development at TerraCycle & Loop. Loblaw will launch an online pilot program using Loop in the Greater Toronto Area in early 2021. (Just this past October, Tim Hortons announced it was partnering with Loop on a plan to offer reusable food and beverage containers at select Toronto stores in 2021.)
Rossi encourages grocers to promote brands that use TerraCyle right on the landing page of their websites and in-store to prompt shoppers to make sustainable choices. “Retailers can partner with TerraCycle and the brands to offer compelling, emotionally engaging retail programs with simple, intuitive and accessible ways to recycle,” he adds.
In the meantime, online grocers like SPUD.ca are using TerraCycle Zero Waste Boxes to recycle products for their customers. While the program is currently on hold during COVID-19, pre-pandemic shoppers simply left their empty packaging in the SPUD bin for pickup and the retailer would ship it back to TerraCycle in bulk. (Consumers can also drop off their used containers to any of the SPUD-owned Be Fresh Market and Cafés or Blush Lane Organic Markets located in British Columbia and Alberta.)
SPUD has introduced several other recycling initiatives to its customers, including glass bottle distribution and pickup for milk and soap refills. Michelle Austin, SPUD’s sustainability lead, says the fact SPUD is doing the pickup removes the barrier of customers having to return containers to a store. “Customers are actually asking us to do more in this space and we’re responding,” she says. “We’re glad they see value in the zero waste that we do.”
Focusing on food waste
At Organic Garage, an independent grocer in Ontario, zero food waste initiatives have been a priority from the onset, says Randee Glassman, director of marketing. “We have a fantastic bulk program with up to 60 items,” she says. “We have amazing teas and spices in bulk, along with household cleaners and soaps.” Even with COVID-19, she says they’ve been able to bring the bulk program back by providing containers and featuring hand sanitizing stations throughout.
The grocer also works with waste companies to ensure all vegetable trimmings and fruit waste are recycled into cattle feed. Inedible byproducts from its meat department (i.e., meat bones, discarded meat fats and store grease) are also transformed into both industrial and consumer fare.
This whole idea of “upcycling” (or using food waste to create new products) is a trend that both analysts and retailers anticipate will gain momentum in the coming years as the effort to tackle the world’s 1.3 billion tons of annual food waste becomes a bigger priority. “We make an effort to identify and bring in upcycled products where available as it is a category that is growing,” says Anthony D’Addario, vice-president of operations at Nature’s Emporium in Ontario. He points to favoured brands like Barnana, which upcycles bananas to make sweet and savoury treats, and Outcast Foods, which makes protein powder and vitamins from imperfect produce.
In fact, Outcast Foods is now working with Sobeys in Nova Scotia to divert the grocer’s unsellable fruits and veggies from landfills into quality products. This aligns with Sobeys’ pledge to reduce food waste across its operations by 50% by 2025.
As more and more upcycled products come into the market, the expectation is that shoppers will want complete transparency, too. The Upcycled Food Association is in the process of developing a certification program that will allow qualified products to carry an identifying seal clearly showing they are upcycled or contain upcycled ingredients.
Cutting carbon footprint
It’s not surprising that shoppers concerned about climate change will be looking for food products with smaller carbon footprints. To that end, this year Panera became the first restaurant chain to partner with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in listing entrees on its menu as climate-friendly “Cool Food Meals.” Similar to recommended calories per day, the WRI has established a maximum recommended daily carbon footprint for a person’s diet, which is 38% smaller than the current average.
While carbon labels on grocery products aren’t new, there’s been a resurgence of late in this area, with companies like Oatly and Quorn Food in the United Kingdom launching carbon label initiatives in 2020. To further raise awareness around the environmental impact of food, Swedish food company Felix opened a pop-up “Climate Store” in Stockholm in October and based all product prices on carbon footprint: the bigger the emission, the higher the price. The company is also starting to add low climate impact labels on products with emissions that are at least half of the average for food in Sweden.
Nespresso is another manufacturer that recently announced plans to better tackle carbon emissions across its products and supply chain. Along with increasing the use of low-carbon virgin aluminum in its coffee capsules, the company has committed to planting trees in coffee farms and investing in forest conservation and restoration projects. The goal is for every cup of Nespresso coffee to be carbon-neutral by 2022.
Sustainable next steps
As manufacturers and suppliers address a growing trend towards sustainable products and packaging, grocers are, ultimately, tasked with helping consumers make sustainable choices. “One challenge with sustainability is the metrics can vary so it’s hard to say one product is more sustainable than another in absolute terms,” says Innova Market Insights’ Williams. “But there is always the opportunity to look for products that have attributes that are sustainable so shoppers looking for that could more easily find .”
To keep sustainability initiatives on track, there’s also a need to make “sustainable choices the sustainable choice,” says Eli Browne, director of corporate sustainability at Sobeys. “ may be asking for sustainable products but there is always that value pricing pressure, and we need to be able to respond accordingly to provide quality products at price points people can afford,” she explains, adding that this is both the challenge and opportunity in working with suppliers.
Browne says there are instances where suppliers have come to Sobeys or vice-versa to come up with new innovations when it comes to sustainable packaging. “I think a great example is our cucumber trays, which went from a non-recyclable plastic to a molded fibre tray that can be recycled,” she says. “Now it’s grown to be an industry standard.”
Along with providing shoppers with sustainable choices in products and packaging, there’s an onus on retailers to educate their customers in how to promote environmentally friendly habits at home too, adds Browne. “I see education and engaging customers to make the right choice going hand in hand,” she says. “Being in a retail space where people have to go to eat, we have that privilege and responsibility to be part of the solution.”