How COVID-19 Redefined Sustainability for Consumers

Mintel uncovers the effects of COVID-19 on sustainability, from the acceleration of old trends to the emergence of new ones.

18 Dec 2020

5 min

#Global #Insights #Sustainability #COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted macro consumer drivers, underpinning food and drink shopping behavior, and redefined consumers’ view of sustainability. Prior to the pandemic, consumers were focused on companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) and viewed sustainability as traditionally associated with environmentally friendly practices. In recent months, this consumer definition of sustainability has evolved beyond purely environmental.

Consumers are now more aware of the need for ethical claims, human welfare, sustainable supply chains, and the reduction of food waste.

COVID-19 will accelerate the adoption of conscious consumption behaviors that were predicted by Mintel's 2030 Global Food & Drink Trend Change, Incorporated. The pandemic amplified environmental concerns, as government lockdowns have highlighted the positive progress nature can make despite wide-ranging damage. Although some might say plastics have provided some benefit around food safety, we know sustainability goes beyond packaging, to considerations around food waste, farming practices and carbon emissions.

Concerns about food waste were growing before COVID-19, however consumers were looking to food and drink companies – not themselves – to make a difference. For example, 80% of Chinese internet users aged 18-49 agree reducing product waste is more important than reducing packaging waste.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Mintel Global Consumer July 2020 data shows that 26% of New Zealanders say the environment has become a higher priority. We know that food waste is a big part of this, with 40% of New Zealanders prioritizing planning their meals and food consumption to reduce waste, even more so since the pandemic hit.

Global lockdowns and the ensuing disruption to global supply chain networks have also brought renewed attention issues of food waste. The closure of foodservice and other out-of-home channels led to a publicized increase in food waste, as surpluses of animal protein, dairy and produce could not find their end destinations in time. This could mean a draw to products that are made with food that would otherwise have gone to waste.

This was also the first time some consumers were faced with the prospect of empty supermarket shelves, as some markets suffered major shortages due to global supply chain disruption and panic buying. Short-term buying of local goods may increase as consumers understand the differences their purchases can make. They may be motivated to buy from local shops and manufacturers to help build more resilient domestic supply chains whilst international supply chains recover. 

Post-COVID-19, consumers will also seek reassurance that companies are paying workers fairly, including those deemed essential workers in the food & drink industry. 2020 saw a rapid awareness of how important supermarket staff, factory operators, farmers and more, are to keeping society functioning. A heightened focus on people welfare in 2020 will increase the use of related ethical claims from brands and manufacturers.

Into 2021, through Mintel’s Consumer Trend Driver - Surroundings, the accelerated demand for sustainability will now mean that consumers’ focus will be on taking personal responsibility over the next 12 months. 

As the pandemic’s impact will be felt in many countries for a while longer, consumers will want to ensure the safety of their communities and seek more transparency from brands on how their activities help protect and sustain their communities and natural environment.

Related reading...


2021 A Year in Review


COVID driven High Protein Drinking Yoghurt Trends


COVID-19 Dairy Impact Analysis

What Next?

Chinese male smiling outdoors in a park while wearing kimono

Take Action for People and the Planet

The welfare of people has superseded packaging as consumers' immediate corporate responsibility concern. Food and beverage manufacturers should complement existing ethical and environmental commitments with programs that help people throughout the supply chain and community. Policies that empower workers, compensate them fairly and address rising hunger will have success in the coming years.

Stimulate Conscious Consumption

COVID-19 has led people to re-think what is important in their lives, inspiring mindful shopping behaviors that are steps toward conscious consumption. Consumers are actively seeking information on how the brands they choose can help both personal and planetary health. Post-COVID-19, shoppers will look for opportunities to support local brands, become more socially responsible, and reduce waste without overextending budgets.

Sustainable & Responsible Packaging Priorities to Return

As the threat of the virus subsides, pre-COVID-19 trends involving recycling, refilling, and wider environmental commitments will return. Consumers will once again become more conscious of their packaging needs and consumption habits. 

One way this will materialize is through the reduction and avoidance of single-use plastics to prevent plastic pollution. Thus, projects and systems that were in place before the outbreak should not be overlooked. Post-COVID-19, eco-conscious consumers will once again place sustainable packaging on the forefront of their priority list.

The article is based on insights and data provided by the world’s leading market intelligence firm Mintel. For more information, please visit

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the opinion of the author, not those of Fonterra, and Fonterra is not responsible for any decisions taken in reliance on the same.

About the authors


Market Intelligence Agency

Mintel is the expert in what consumers want and why. As the world’s leading market intelligence agency, our analysis of consumers, markets, new products and competitive landscapes provides a unique perspective on global and local economies. Since 1972, our predictive analytics and expert recommendations have enabled our clients to make better business decisions faster.

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