Covid-19: Forming new habits now to keep sustainability on the agenda

If successful, it takes weeks and months to break bad habits – unless they are forced upon someone. So called ‘life events’ are a very common cause for a change of habits. Practising social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus and all its consequences is such a ‘life event’. This means we are all going through an important phase in which we form new habits. We’ll be looking back at 2020 and say this was the year we started doing... Of course, safety and coping with the immediate crisis is the first priority, but we are also aiming to stimulate thinking on how we can make use of this important phase to advance the sustainability agenda.  

Pre-corona – we’ve made progress

Consumer habits, towards a more sustainable production and consumption behaviour, have been slowly developing. For example, consumers started bringing their own cups into their favourite coffee shops, carrying around their own water bottles and filled them up in various places, and restaurants abandoned single-use plastic cutlery and replaced them with metal cutlery.

Additionally, consumers increasingly opted for loose fruit and vegetables not wrapped in plastic, with plastic free initiatives and even entire aisles flourishing. Alternatives to plastic packaging were being trialled e.g. providing more paper bags in supermarkets, and circular economy initiatives were gaining traction despite complex infrastructural issues for retailers implementing reverse logistics for reuse and recycle. These initiatives were all supported by lobbyists and governments via regulations such as bans on single-use plastics.

Life event: coronavirus we have to shift priorities

Where shopping is still possible, the coronavirus seems to have put a stop to all of these positive developments. The horror of someone getting infected from touching loose products, water refill stations, or cutlery looms larger than the abstract damage of the plastic wrapping. Due to the importance of maintaining health and safety whilst at the same time keeping the country fed, grocery retailers and industry have had to shift priorities to safety and availability. Large retailers have stopped taking back their plastic bags for recycling or handing over large multi-use boxes that are touched by staff and customers before being returned into the delivery vehicle. Since the delivery needs to be safe, products are handed over in countless plastic bags. And with the current historically low oil prices, plastic is even more financially accessible than ever before. 

Forming new habits prepare for the new normal  

We would like to encourage retailers and industry to continue the pre-coronavirus path towards sustainability. We think there are ways to address the new need for safety whilst at the same time trying to pick up where we left off in terms of sustainability once things start slowly returning to normal. We should take the opportunity to form consumer habits now, for example run ‘touch it – take it’ campaigns, use protective shields to cover areas with loose products, restrict the amount of each product on display to reduce contamination and replenish more frequently. Rather than using plastic bags instead of the multi-use delivery boxes in delivery, create a single use wrapper around the handle to reduce potential contagion. Rather than going back to single-use plastic cutlery, work on solutions to have single dispense multi-use cutlery, giving consumers piece of mind that no-one has touched it between the cleaning and their usage, and offer in-store hand sanitiser as they do in healthcare. Rather than using pin pads for card payment that are touched by hundreds of customers every day, either negotiate higher thresholds for contactless payment or allow consumers to use their own devices for scanning and payment. And more importantly, renew the search for alternative packaging. Plastics are still criticised for allowing the virus to lurk for 2-3 days on the surface, so perhaps other packaging solutions, e.g. paper, sustainably sourced cotton or natural material, will offer greater safety from contagion.

New consumer habits are forming now, take the time to think of solutions to prepare for the new normal. If there is a silver lining in this, it is that retailers and industry have the opportunity to change these embedded habits for the better, now and for good. Let’s not go backwards on sustainability, but instead address immediate safety in combination with long-term sustainability.