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Could a silver lining of the pandemic be a greater emphasis on sustainable food supply?

Shoppers turn to local produce in the wake of the pandemic


Could a silver lining of the pandemic be a greater emphasis on sustainable food supply? circles

The economic devastation caused by the pandemic means that cost looms large as we choose what foods to buy, but it is not the only consideration. New research commissioned by ING and conducted by Longitude shows that food producers and retailers can attract shoppers with sustainability.

The survey of more than 4,000 consumers worldwide shows that the pandemic has prompted 60% to purchase more fresh, local produce from identified sources. And the impact is likely to endure: 68% say that the pandemic has shown it is possible to make lasting societal changes that benefit the environment, and 64% expect it to have a long-term impact on their shopping, food and transport preferences.

For some consumers, the empty shelves that characterised the early stages of the pandemic were a wake-up call. They had taken for granted the convenience of globalised, just-in-time supply chains; perhaps local shops and smaller domestic producers would be safer and more reliable. And if that shift is also better for the planet, even better.

“The trend towards local is real and will be sustained over time.”

People power

“All of a sudden, the world has become aware that the food system is not as resilient as it needs to be,” says Chris Daly, VP Sustainability at PepsiCo Europe.

“Covid has led to greater awareness about sustainability,” says Daly. “A lot of people are more willing to accept a call to action now than they would have been before. And companies respond to what their customers want: if customers raise their voices, things will happen.”

If not protesting vocally, then customers are at least voting with their wallets. In ING’s research, 58% say they now take sustainability into consideration when deciding which food retailers to purchase from and which brands to buy. In China and India, it is even higher: 85% and 78% respectively. In European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, less than half of respondents are taking sustainability into consideration – potentially taking this for granted already.

Data visualisation showing how sustainability matters to consumers - DESKTOP

Data visualisation showing how sustainability matters to consumers - MOBILE

Farhan Siddiqi, Chief Digital Officer at the Dutch retailer Ahold Delhaize, says that businesses such as his now need to respond. “The business model of the future is an omnichannel one that enables the customer to shop how they want, where they want and when they want,” he says. “The trend towards local is real and will be sustained over time: consumers have a growing preference for locally sourced food.”


Does sustainability have to come at a cost?

Retailers and food producers that do not prioritise sustainability and communicate with consumers about it may risk a competitive disadvantage, says Hanne Søndergaard, Chief Marketing Officer and VP Sustainability at Scandinavian dairy cooperative Arla Foods. “Consumers are becoming more and more interested in what needs to happen from a climate point of view in the way that they shop and the brands that they choose,” she says. “They are becoming more and more conscious and discerning.”

There is, however, a crucial issue to address: cost. ING’s research shows that 73% of consumers believe sustainably produced food is more expensive, but 57% say that they would be prepared to pay higher prices for products if they knew they had been made in an environmentally friendly way. However, given the ongoing economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, this figure may waver.

Deborah Perkins, ING’s Global Head of Food & Agribusiness, expects the focus on sustainability to continue but warns that a recession will weigh on consumer spending. 

“Sustainability is a luxury that affluent consumers can say that they want. But at the end of the day, affordable food will be what everybody wants.”

So does the food industry then simply consign these consumers, to less sustainable, less ethical produce?

“I would argue that the majority of the companies in the food sector are interested in sustainability because if they're not sustainable they're not going to be there for the long term,” Perkins says.

To create the right balance between affordability and sustainability will be crucial in the post-pandemic marketplace as retailers and food producers seek to respond to consumer demand. The research suggests that consumers will look for products and services that reflect their changing values and principles, and that they are likely to be willing – if they are able – to pay significantly more for them.

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