Against the backdrop of Covid-19 and its immediate consequences for health and the economy, many consumers around the world are going to be facing pressures that may lead sustainability to become less of a priority despite the recent growing interest in the issue. Market researchers at Ipsos have recently polled consumers worldwide about the factors shaping their purchasing habits and for their current views about subjects such as packaging and the environment. just-food sister site Packaging Gateway discussed their findings.

Packaging has been a hot topic among a growing number of consumers over the last couple of years and, consequently, manufacturers and brand owners have had to quickly review how products are packaged.

But what impact has the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic had on consumer behaviour and on how they view the merits – or otherwise – of packaging? Ipsos, a multinational market research team headquartered in Paris, has published a white paper, Clean, Green and Affordable, exploring how food packaging will involve “balancing competing tensions” – sustainability, hygiene and value – post-pandemic. Packaging Gateway’s Jessie Page discussed the report’s findings with Ian Payne, a co-author of the report and global service leader of pack testing at Ipsos.

Jessie Paige: Has sustainability taken a back seat amid Covid-19 or are we still seeing just as much demand for it?

Ian Payne: People continue to believe that they will act responsibly. In mid-April for example, 79% of a global audience claimed that they will seek out products that are healthier and better for the environment. We also see waste continue to be a top environmental concern, at a similar level to global warming and air pollution.

These attitudes have been built and reinforced over years so, even though our actions as consumers are not necessarily consistent, our positive attitudes towards the importance of sustainability appear to be maintained. It’s likely the case, therefore, that although we all have something hugely significant to deal with, our underlying values with respect to sustainability are not necessarily impacted by this new issue.

Jessie Paige: Have heightened concerns about hygiene led sustainability to be pushed down the consumer agenda?

Ian Payne: We have to consider the reality of what sustainability means for the typical consumer. In practice, it means avoiding products which have a lot of packaging. That is what is top of mind for consumers in terms of their actions on climate change. For example, it’s something which they can easily control and demands much less of a sacrifice than giving up meat, dairy and other types of behaviour change. It also means continuing to follow the rules in terms of sorting the rubbish correctly and putting things in the right container.

This is the reality of acting sustainably for a lot of people. In a large part, people can still exercise their level of responsibility even with heightened concerns on hygiene brought about by Covid-19. Of course, there will be differences – more takeaway and home delivery mean more waste. Not being able to use your reusable mug in the coffee shop means more single-use, but it would be wrong to consider hygiene concerns are pushing out sustainability concerns.

Jessie Paige: Despite the pandemic causing hygiene concerns, your research suggests hygiene and sustainability are only secondary issues relative to other drivers of consumer behaviour. Why do you think that is?

Ian Payne: I think the large majority of consumers surveyed are used to shopping in clean store environments and buying products from trusted brands or indeed private labels from trusted retailers. They can control where and how they shop, but when it comes to the products they buy, there’s no real choice at shelf with respect to hygiene. It’s therefore not a choice driver so ends up as a secondary concern in comparison to an issue like price, for example, where there is a choice. Lower consumer confidence driven by concerns about employment prospects may also be contributing to rising price as a concern.

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s the same issue with sustainability. If we’re concerned about single-use plastics at the level we claim – 71% agree that ‘single-use plastics should be banned as soon as possible’ – then why continue buying the products we do? It’s because there is not a viable alternative without compromise. We’ve got other priorities and we’re making decisions quickly in-store. So, although it’s there in our attitudes, it doesn’t necessarily manifest in the way we might expect.

Jessie Paige: What is the one thing consumers are looking for in food packaging now and why?

Ian Payne: While it’s impossible to definitively pinpoint one exact feature right now, whatever it is, it is likely not that different from what it was before the pandemic. We ran a study in May in the UK to test out a variety of claims including some quite strong new-to-the-world ideas, including some fictitious ones.

While Covid-19 has disrupted many things, what was striking was that the winning claims rather highlighted that consumers remain true to established beliefs. The top three claims, for example, related to wholesome/natural, biodegradable packaging and no additives. More broadly, we should also acknowledge that we generally buy what’s in front of us – physically or digitally. We haven’t seen evidence of people demanding different products or packaging.

Jessie Paige: You say companies that successfully balance hygiene, sustainability and value are the most likely to be successful. What steps should businesses be taking?

Ian Payne: Sustainable business practices remain relevant even in the height of Covid-19, as illustrated by people’s attitudes to health and the environment. In that context, those companies which can continue to drive better environmental outcomes in the face of reduced consumer confidence and increased sensitivity to hygiene have an opportunity to build themselves long-term reputational equity and better chances of success.

In the same way that manufacturers, retailers and suppliers have been demonstrating a commitment to change with respect to plastics, for example, there’s a responsibility to communicate clearly with consumers and to avoid the temptation to deliver artificial benefits related to hygiene.

One in three consumers believes that Covid-19 can be spread by boxes and packages received from other countries. It’s important to communicate the reality to consumers, not least so the focus can be on where the real risks of transfer are. I think we all play a part in that because of the trust that brands and retailers garner.