Can sustainability survive COVID-19?

December 17, 2020
Kimberly J. Decker

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 23 No. 10, Volume 23, Issue 10

Is sustainability still top of mind with consumers and companies amidst the pandemic?

“Humans,” observes Brian Zapp, creative director, Applied Food Sciences (AFS; Austin, TX), “are confusing. We can be quite caring—and selfish—at the same time.”

And we needn’t look farther than our own shopping carts to see how. Case in point, Zapp says, “We can be simultaneously health-conscious, late-night-craving, keto-friendly, fast-food-loving, gluten-free, deep-fried, on-the-go, sugar-free sweet-tooths. And how we approach the issue of sustainability fits right in with this.”

That means that even as headlines crow about rising rates of sustainable shopping, human beings still let one-third of all food produced globally, or the equivalent of 1.3 billion tons, go to waste every year, according to United Nations measures.1

So now, with the COVID-19 pandemic sowing further confusion in our lives, might consumers’ commitment to sustainable consumption—and the supplement industry’s commitment to sustainable sourcing and production—grow even more tenuous?

Zapp actually isn’t so sure. “I think it should be clear that being selfish and caring for the environment can live harmoniously,” he says—“with the right approach.” And the pandemic, it turns out, may present the best approach we’ve seen yet.

No Slowing Down

More than half a year into that pandemic, there’s little evidence that consumers have abandoned sustainability. As Mike Forbes, CEO of confectionery company Alter Eco (San Francisco, CA), notes, “There’s been a steady rise in sustainable shopping habits over the past few years, and we’re seeing the pandemic accelerate that trend.”

Indeed, results of an IRI consumer survey conducted in July—several months into most lockdowns—found that sustainability still plays an “important” role for one in seven Americans, with another half claiming that it’s “somewhat important.”

Moreover, when IRI teamed with the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business to review consumer purchases of sustainability-marketed products in 36 CPG categories from January 2015 through June 2020, the resulting Sustainable Market Share Index2 found that sales of items marketed as sustainable continue to grow even amidst COVID-19. Not only did such products see significant increases in market share early on—up 19.32% for the week ending March 15—they maintained their strong share through mid-June.

No Time Like the Present

All of which makes sense to Andrea Zangara, head of scientific communications and marketing, Euromed S.A. (Barcelona). In unsettled times, consumers crave safety and certainty, he says, which translates into support for brands that “keep their promises in terms of health benefits, quality, origin, and sustainability.”

“For this reason,” he says, “they’re scrutinizing brands’ claims and practices more closely, and they prefer products that are certified sustainable or organic, produced with clean and ecological technologies, and less likely to present the risk of residual chemicals that are harmful to health and the environment.”

And the current contagion has done yeoman’s work impressing upon them why this is important. “The pandemic has illuminated just how interconnected our health is to the health of the planet,” Forbes says. “News of drastically dropping carbon emissions during shutdown renewed attention on our carbon footprints and showed that it’s not too late to make an impact.”

No wonder, then, that since the pandemic began, “there’s been a groundswell of awareness of carbon-neutral and carbon-negative foods,” he says. “Brands across the board—from Annie’s to Panera—are answering with regenerative agriculture and more sustainable programs.”

It All Starts with Soil

As is Alter Eco. The company is especially keen on promoting restorative farming and dynamic agroforestry, a regenerative-agricultural model wherein farmers plant a diversity of crops—up to 15 species per acre, Forbes says—next to the main crop “to mimic a natural, self-sustaining ecosystem that improves plant and soil health, as well as farmer working conditions and income diversification.” It’s a model that he believes “has the potential to change not only our entire food system, but also our futures.”

It has the potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere, too, which could put us that much closer to bending the curve on climate change.

“That’s why we’re excited to have launched the Alter Eco Foundation during this difficult time,” Forbes explains. The foundation’s mission is to make the brand’s agroforestry model available to the cocoa industry at large and, the company hopes, expedite its adoption across global chocolate supply chains.

Calculations show that by shifting its cocoa production to this regenerative model, Alter Eco could on its own increase carbon sequestration by 83 metric tons of CO2 per acre over 20 years relative to conventional monoculture, Forbes says. That suggests that implementation at scale across the global cocoa industry’s roughly 30 million acres could sequester 2.5 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere over the same time.

Big-Tent Sustainability

Such farming systems are critical, given the pace of climate change and the fact that at the current rate of degradation, we’ll no longer have enough soil3 suitable for growing the crops we need to feed ourselves within 50 years, Zapp says. But sustainability encompasses more than just healthy soil and sequestered carbon.

IRI’s July 2020 consumer survey found that respondents view sustainability as a multifaceted concept encompassing values and goals that range from minimizing carbon footprints and natural-resource exploitation to reducing waste, shifting to renewable resources, diminishing negative environmental impacts, and slowing climate change.

And increasingly—especially among younger consumers—social-justice concerns such as protecting human rights, reducing poverty, coming together as a community, and supporting people and organizations that benefit society at large also define big-tent sustainability. According to IRI’s July survey, half of Gen Z and Millennial respondents actively seek out retailers that carry sustainable products, with 54% buying at least as many organic products as they did before COVID-19 and 69% buying as many or more “eco-friendly” products as they did pre-COVID.

Consumers aren’t alone in gathering under sustainability’s big tent, either. “From an ingredient-supplier perspective,” Zapp says, “sustainability goes beyond regenerative agriculture and avoiding the pollutants, plastics, and chemicals that impact the environment. While these are essential, sustainability entails human elements in terms of social responsibility and traceability, too.”

For example, given that many of the raw materials that AFS sources grow in locations where living conditions are poor and workers have little agency, the company created its Responsible Sourcing initiative to address sustainable growing, socially responsible sourcing, and full traceability, Zapp says.

The Business Case

And it likely wasn’t a difficult move for the company to make. As Ann Armbrecht, PhD, director of the American Botanical Council’s (ABC; Austin, TX) Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP), points out, maintaining sustainable business practices is the surest route to strengthening supplement-ingredient supplies.

Why? “Because if growers and collectors aren’t treated fairly or paid a decent wage, they’re likely to leave their work to find jobs that pay more,” she says. Such urban migration leaves the botanical industry’s long-term stability vulnerable.

Thus, Armbrecht concludes, “Every company needs to think about how to address the root causes of that migration. Why are younger generations not going into farming or collecting? How does local sourcing play into that? How do fair labor practices play into that? How can the industry make those jobs more meaningful by providing better wages and, also, longer contracts, training, and other opportunities?”

And as if industry needed any more convincing, Armbrecht offers this: “Investing in the value networks where botanicals are sourced leads to higher-quality botanicals. So it makes sense from a business view, even if the moral argument doesn’t.”

Extra Efforts

To that end, this spring ABC and SHP released their Sustainability and Regenerative Practices Toolkit, which Armbrecht describes as “a collection of best practices for the botanical industry.” In its wake, the organization has hosted online conversations to foster further action on the issues it raises.

Per Forbes, Alter Eco’s further action focuses on farmers, whom he calls “the lifeblood of our business.” So when the pandemic struck, he says, “We immediately started raising funds to protect them and their families, making sure they had the supplies needed to stay safe.” And far from weakening the company’s commitment to sustainability, “the pandemic has only strengthened our commitment to making a positive impact on the planet, pioneering a sustainable supply chain, and taking care of people, especially during these times,” he says.

For its part, Euromed is focusing on locally sourcing raw materials in an effort to ward off supply bottlenecks and to support local communities while shrinking its carbon footprint. “Waste products from our saw-palmetto extraction are used to develop ecological dyes,” Zangara adds, “and we’ve invested in cleaner extraction processes and expanded the number of ingredients obtained using our water-only extraction technology, Pure Hydro Process.”

What’s more, Euromed was an inaugural underwriter of the ABC’s SHP itself, “aiming to increase the awareness of sustainable sourcing to benefit all parties in the supply chain, from growers and businesses to consumers,” Zangara says.

Build It and They Will Pay?

Yet while industry’s efforts are admirable, they’re not without costs. And if those costs trickle down to consumers—increasingly cash-strapped as the pandemic ushers in recession—will they value them enough to pay more?

Only time will tell. But worth noting, Forbes says, are the results of a recent survey4 that found 43% of respondents who’d been laid off, furloughed, or otherwise professionally disrupted thanks to the pandemic still willing to pay extra for more sustainable products. “That’s a powerful number,” he says.

And the lesson he and others draw from it is that demand for sustainable products isn’t a mere trend—“it’s a major decision factor for consumers,” he says. “Shoppers, especially younger ones, realize that the brands they support today can affect the world they live in tomorrow, and they’ll spend on them if it means positively investing in their futures, even during times of uncertainty.”

No Time to Waste

Yet all this focus on the consumer, Armbrecht maintains, misses the point.

“My goal at the Sustainable Herbs Program is to show that investing in sustainability is not an add-on to have because consumers do or don’t demand it,” she explains. “Making the sourcing investments that fall under sustainability is essential to ensuring that botanical companies have the raw materials they need in the long run. So I get frustrated with conversations that continue to hold out consumers as the drivers for sustainability. I believe we all have a moral responsibility to invest in building healthier soils and ecosystems, address the loss of biodiversity and climate change, and reverse the preexisting social inequities that COVID-19 amplified. We don’t have much time to turn things around, and I believe that whether we’re a company head, a sourcing lead, or a consumer searching for a natural product in the supplement aisle, we each need to do whatever we can to take action to support the long-term health of the plants and people on whom this industry depends.”

And the need is more evident now than ever. “As the coronavirus has made starkly clear,” Armbrecht concludes, “we are all interconnected. And our health and wellness are inextricably connected with those of the human and ecological systems in which we live and on which we depend. So my hope is that we all—the botanical industry included—use this time to awaken to what this interdependence means and to how we move forward to create more resilient economies that recognize and build on it.”

References

  1. United Nations Environment Programme webpage. “Minimizing Food Waste.” Accessed here.
  2. NY Stern Center for Sustainable Business report. “Sustainable Market Share Index: Research on 2015-2020 IRI Purchasing Data Reveals Sustainability Drives Growth, Survives the Pandemic.” Updated July 16, 2020. Accessed here.
  3. Regeneration International website. Accessed here.
  4. Genomatica press release. “Survey: Americans Embrace Sustainability Despite COVID-19 Upheaval.” Released July 29, 2020. Accessed here.
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