Future proofing

Dejan Mitrovic reveals the impact of coronavirus on the food industry and six upcoming drivers that are set to shift food production

While global food systems have been strongly impacted by issues of climate change, ocean plastics, soil health and food waste over the last decade, the devastating effects of Covid-19 will undoubtedly be the industry’s biggest challenge in the months and weeks to come.

Offering design and circular economy consultancy for the food sector, our team of creative professionals are at the forefront of the global challenges that are pointing to the need for a sustainable and healthy economy. Here are six tips for companies considering their long-term strategy:

1. Eliminate reliance on single-use packaging
The very real threat of food shortages and breakdowns in supply chains has been highlighted in a big way by coronavirus. In the UK, consumers are struggling to purchase flour from supermarkets not only because of issues with the mills, but because there is a lack of packaging to place them in stores. The issue of packaging extends to all food products. We’re working on a project for packaging-free retailer HISBE (How It Should BE) in Brighton, to design a dispensing unit for selling liquid products without single use packaging.

2. Test ideas quickly through prototypes
We anticipate that food and drink manufacturers will operate on tighter projects budgets, with fewer opportunities to invest in sustainable innovation. With a growing customer demand for change, this presents a real need to de-risk budgets. We recently supported an energy company looking to get into the food sector. This project was all about measuring the general public’s attitude to their new product idea by mocking up the design and undertaking customer research to test and validate the concept. The positive response has helped the company raise internal funding for further development.

3. Seeing waste as a resource
Considering ‘waste’ as a useful commodity, rather than an inconvenient by-product of food and drink manufacturing allows more control over supply chains. Less reliance on third party raw material suppliers means companies will become more aware of value of their waste streams. Examples of companies doing this include, Toast Ale, who use surpluses from the sandwich industry for brewing beer); Too Good to Go (enabling restaurants to sell any left-over surpluses at the end of the day) and Food Loop, created by Department 22 – helping residents of inner city housing estates finding value in their food waste by turning it into compost to grow vegetables locally.

4. Improve animal welfare
The origins of Covid-19 are as yet unconfirmed, but suspicions around the link between intensive animal farming and human health have put a spotlight on the need for more stringent animal welfare regulation. If the food and drink industry can contribute to reducing the risk of future pandemics then this must be prioritised – Department 22 worked with McDonalds to develop various design concepts that increase welfare in chicken farms.

5. Produce food that is good for the planet and for humans
Consumer concern about personal health is at an all-time high, and this, coupled with the realisation about the benefits of a cleaner environment, means that food and drink brands need to carefully consider any new releases. There have been links between obesity and the Covid-19 death rates, so discussion around health as part of our everyday lives will be on the increase. Processed foods, the majority of which have added salt and sugar are declining, driving a boom in the number of start-ups offering innovative alternatives to popular food products.

6. Redesign services
With lockdowns across the world shifting our everyday way of life, i.e. less international travel, more working from home, food and drink brands should look towards new ways of delivering products and services in the long term. The hyperlocal and online ordering systems have become far more important, and we expect this to remain true even after the pandemic. Foodmadegood.org suggests that 63 per cent of operators are most concerned about a lack of customers and financial insecurity on re-opening, 25 per cent have moved to a delivery service during Covid-19 and will continue after re-opening and huge 98 per cent are willing and able to focus on environmental and social sustainability on re-opening.

These future-proofing tips have one thing in common – the increasingly urgent need for food that is both good for our collective health and good for the planet. Adapting to these trends should be a priority for businesses looking to future-proof themselves in an increasingly unstable economy.

Dejan Mitrovic is Director of Department 22, a London-based innovation and future forecasting agency. Department 22 specialises in helping companies understand their customers, increase sales and open up new markets through innovative products, services and systems. Its team of creative professionals and leading experts in the sustainable economy offer consultancy on transforming global challenges into new business opportunities through design-thinking. Its unique process helps companies uncover innovative pathways to sustainable systems through visioning workshops, trend research and concept generation.