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Organic, ethical, healthy and local

How the pandemic is creating more conscious consumers

Lee Holdstock is Business & Trade Development Manager at Soil Association Certification

A recent report by the Food Farming and Countryside Commission & The Food Foundation suggested 42% of people now value food more than they did prior to this pandemic. For the likes of independent retailers and those involved in creating organic products, this appears to be good news and a reason to be optimistic about the coming months.

With an economic downturn predicted, many would be forgiven for thinking that this will immediately result in consumers demanding the lowest possible prices for food – often available in supermarkets – however this is not proving to be the case. This pandemic has shaped, and will continue to shape, our consumer behaviour in a markedly different way to that of the 2008 recession.

The Coronavirus crisis has bought food, health and the environment sharply into focus. Sparked by a tangible biological catalyst, this crisis has forced individuals to really consider what matters in their lives, with many seeking comforts in good food and nature.

Food, health and the environment are so evidently interconnected – and this is further highlighted by theories that the source of the outbreak might have been from the sale of unregulated wild meat in China. Whether true or not, many are now confronting the reality that contagious diseases such as SARS, MERS and Ebola are likely caused as a result of the destruction of wildlife habitats, biodiversity loss or intensive livestock farming practices – with mass pig farming of particular concern.

Independent boom

The facts of this crisis mean people's appetite for consuming consciously will be greater than ever before. In fact, I had not seen a more positive period than in the year leading up to the crisis, in terms of the public's engagement with buying organic because of its positive impact on the planet. I do not see this crisis dampening that resolve.

In 2008, we witnessed supermarkets removing organic and premium lines in an assumption that consumer demand would fade away. This decision is now largely viewed as a mistake as the core buyers of organic and premium simply went elsewhere – including independent retailers who had stayed loyal to the brands they believed in. This resulted in a boom for independent and online retailers – particularly in the years following the recession – and those same retailers are also seeing record sales now as consumers seek new, more ethical and more local ways to purchase their food.

In fact, a report released in late April by Ecovia Intelligence revealed that organic sales have received a boost of up to 30% in some countries since the beginning of the pandemic.

Consumer support

Lockdown here in the UK resulted in consumers looking for alternatives when it came to food shopping. A number of reasons could have contributed to this, including wanting to visit smaller stores to avoid crowds, or choosing options closer to home to limit journeys or even to support smaller, local but more vulnerable businesses at a precarious time. There has also been a greater motivation to shop in places that are strongly associated with healthy products as we all continue to feel increased anxiety over our wellbeing.

As many consumers shop differently it feels important that we help make these new positive buying experiences become new habits. Finding opportunities to remind customers about the health, animal welfare and environmental dimensions of their purchase may harness the enthusiasm of these new consumers, ensuring they remain loyal throughout and beyond the crisis.

At Soil Association, we are working hard to share the message about the environmental benefits of choosing organic and hope that the upcoming Organic September campaign – which this year is a unified campaign with the Organic Trade Board – will further reinforce those messages and bring customers through the doors of independents who stock a great range of organic products.

With fewer avenues to spend our money at present, and with our food systems, our health and the importance of our environment so starkly in focus, it seems likely that making positive and responsible food choices will remain a priority for the public, who are now more than ever, proving to be conscious consumers.

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