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  • Author: Jane Leydon, Strategic Insight & Planning, Bord Bia - The Irish Food Board

    Covid-19 Brings a New Tension between Hygiene and Sustainability



    This FoodAlert will examine how consumers are demanding more packaging for fresh produce and open food as a result of Covid-19. It will then conclude with the implications of this for Irish suppliers.


    We are in the midst of a crisis that has elevated hygiene as a top priority for consumers and the question has now been posed; does Covid-19 make people value hygiene over sustainability? (Canvas8, 2020).


    Research from Nielsen highlights how natural and sustainable product claims as well as quality and brand reputation are losing their relevance as purchase drivers due to an increased consumer preference for hygiene. (Canvas8, 2020) Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of the hygiene risk associated with open food and unpackaged produce. The Thinking House’s Future Proofing work examines this with Indicator 7 ‘Risky Business by exploring how shoppers are shying away from produce on display for all to touch.



    According to Jon Bird in Forbes (2020); “Shoppers don’t want to touch anything apart from their own mobile phones”. We are seeing supermarkets reacting to this, particularly with fresh bakery offerings and over the counter produce which is being sealed and protected from human contact.


    This brings a challenge for Irish retailers and food producers, in particular sectors such as bakery, fresh produce and meats, as it introduces an unwelcome and unsustainable element to the food chain mix –more packaging and more waste. Recent Globaldata research showed that 71.4% of consumers said they consider the environmental impacts of their choice.  Now, as a result of contamination fears and risk-mitigation, many consumers find themselves reluctantly embracing unsustainable choices.


    An important consideration on examination of this phenomenon is whether these emerging behaviours are likely to stick. According to Paco Underhill, on the other side of this crisis people will be more careful and their radar for hygiene is going to be heightened (Verdon, 2020). Consequently, this is likely to manifest as an increase in consumer demand for more packaging that exists post Covid-19 crisis.


    Implications for Irish Suppliers

    This move to no touch retail presents a challenge to brands in affected sectors who want to behave sustainably, as they will have to resolve the tension if this movement sticks.


    The Harvard Business Review, A Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability (Fink and Whelan, 2016) highlights how sustainability can drive innovation. It can be an opportunity to redesign packaging to meet environmental standards or social needs. As those affected navigate this new challenge, they may find that the opportunity lies in redesigning packaging. The challenge can be embraced as an opportunity to redesign packaging in a way that meets these needs for more protection and shielding of contamination while also limiting environmental impact. If suppliers can offer consumers the protection they need without increasing packaging it may be a win-win scenario.





    Bord Bia (2020) Indciator 7 ‘Risky Business’,

    Jon Bird (2020) ‘Zero Contact Everything: Coronavirus Causes The Rapid Rise Of ‘No Touch’ Retail’

    Joan Verdon, 2020 ‘Free Samples, 24-Hour Shopping and Other Things Likely to Disappear as Stores Change in the Wake of The Coronavirus'.

    Canvas8. (2020). ‘Covid-19 Makes People Value Hygiene over Sustainability’

    Fink and Whelan, (2016) ‘The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability’, Harvard Business Review.

    Global Data Research;