As we look back on 2020, I can’t help but think of “Things Can Only Get Better” by the Irish musical group D:Ream, which was used by the Labour Party as its theme tune during the party’s successful campaign in the United Kingdom general election of 1997. It was an upbeat song, which gave hope for a better future.
Let’s hope that the vaccines can be distributed quickly, and our world can return to some kind of normality, very soon.
After 21 years, I decided to leave my corporate career at The Coca-Cola Co. and set up my own strategic management consultancy focused on supporting projects in the U.S. and Europe.
Life, and our industry, will never be the same. I believe the industry has responded well to the challenges, pivoting to maintain the integrity of the food supply chain. However, there are some things that have changed and won’t revert back to how they were before the pandemic. These changes will likely become permanent and are now here to stay.
Remote working is here to stay despite some employers previously not liking it or trusting their employees. Many companies have continued operating on reduced or closed corporate locations. It’s likely there will be a surplus of commercial office real estate in 2021 and onward.
Business travel is likely gone forever. No company is bringing it back in 2021, and 2022 is unlikely to reach the level it was before COVID-19. As a Diamond Medallion airline and hotel program participant and someone who travelled extensively for too many years, I can say with absolute confidence, this is never returning for the majority of people. Video conferencing has removed the need for a flight to Chicago or Los Angeles for a 1-hour customer meeting or 2-hour plant visit.
Live conferences are not returning any time soon, so marketing dollar spending will be either saved or reduced dramatically. My last live conference was GFSI 2020 last February, just as the pandemic was breaking. None of us could have imagined what would follow. But virtual conferences are likely to remain after the pandemic. They do not offer the same opportunities for live networking and connecting on new innovations, but they are cost effective and limit time away from the day job.
Plant-based and organic products will continue to increase in popularity. My children are much more environmentally aware than my generation was, and entirely flexitarian and vegetarian menu days have become the norm in the Marshall household during the pandemic. Every Monday became “Meat-free Monday” — despite my initial reluctance — and I soon began to enjoy the variety of meals. I am convinced that the plant-based trend in the U.S. and Europe will continue for this year and beyond.
In line with that, I have noticed a spectacular growth in the demand for organic products. The need to deliver fresh produce that is organically certified for major retailers is increasing, but this is a challenge considering the No. 1 cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. is in leafy greens. Vertical farms are growing in popularity in densely populated cities where the demand for fresh, safe food continues to increase.
The pandemic has shown we need alternative audit models. The traditional third-party audit includes air fare, hotel stays, travel time, etc., and may remain for some customers. But for others, shorter, simpler, more cost-effective models will be required moving forward, which will enable productivity savings. I foresee a blended approach mixing on-site, hybrid and fully remote audits. The belief held by some, that remote audits cannot be trusted, is crazy. An audit can be manipulated whether it’s live or remote. We as an industry have to move with the times — trust and verify, but embrace technology.
Traceability and transparency will be required by regulators and consumers in the pursuit of more knowledge and information about the products they buy. The future will be determined by the consumer’s demand and need for more information on the ingredients, sourcing and processing. Industry will need to be even more open to partner and share data for consumer transparency. This is likely to be connected to GS1 and QR codes, but it will happen.
The food industry did a tremendous job in 2020, keeping people fed, while continuing to operate and embrace innovation in difficult times. There is a reasonable argument to slow down and take time to absorb and reflect on some of the changes. However, change is inevitable, and it’s how we respond in times of adversity that demonstrate our true resilience. Be the change you want to be.