The novel coronavirus had cases on every continent except Antarctica when it was declared a global pandemic March 11. The crisis was brewing long before, and the United States federal emergency and stay-at-home orders would come after, but it was in that official moment of alarm that consumer behavior, and business’s response to it, changed across the country.
Almost immediately, reusables and durable items took a spotlight as potentially undesirable. The socially sanctioned practice of bring-your-own shopping bags and coffee mugs came to a halt and was enforced at retail locations, as did the use of glass and durable tableware in bars and restaurants before dine-in service stopped.
Even in states that previously had instituted bans on single-use items such as plastic bags (temporarily lifted with new bans on their reusable counterparts), there has been a swap to disposables, thought to be more sanitary than durable products and packaging intended to be used many times, sometimes by many people.
In an evolving age of contagion, we are still only beginning to understand the perception of reusables is that they are vehicles for a virus. But reuse in and of itself isn’t the problem here; it’s the way it’s done.
Reusable packaging is faced with proving its trustworthiness alongside disposables in a world that is standing six feet apart in the grocery aisle.
Take the dentist. Year-round, people young and old go for routine check-ups and surgeries administered by tools and equipment that come in contact with pathogens and people potentially infected with serious diseases. It’s a practice that often draws blood, and yet, the items are used over and over again, on many folks, and everyone’s OK with it.
The reason for this is trust. Despite that most of us will never see it in action, we trust the tools are being sterilized properly. If we didn’t have faith in this, we’d choose another provider or stop going to the dentist.
Reusable packaging is faced with proving its trustworthiness alongside disposables in a world that is standing six feet apart in the grocery aisle. Trusting others to be clean and safe on your behalf is a liability that can result in someone getting sued, or sick, which is why many consumers are opting for goods in single-use packaging and some eateries frown upon patrons taking leftovers home in their own containers in "normal times."
Disposable packages are painted as sterile, while durables are tainted with suspicion. To be clear, unless explicitly labeled "sterile," single-use is no more safe, as both are potentially exposed to different elements in packing, pallet and transport. They are touched by many people, and the independent organizations setting the standards and monitoring respective microbial limits vary.
But trust is a risk, and businesses championing reuse that are able to meet people where they are, COVID-19 notwithstanding, stand to benefit. The sort of systems-thinking that considers the consumer and their values now and beyond this time of uncertainty creates value through a sense of community and meaningful connection that’s both scalable and adaptable.
At the start of this pandemic, our new Loop platform was at the center of some of this discourse, the returnable, refillable packaging model a subject of wonder. In a world where consumers are anxious and making purchases with safety, ease and comfort top of mind, could a zero waste, circular shopping platform of returnable glass, metal and plastic containers survive?
Now, we can report that our sales for April nearly doubled what we did in March, half of which was spent out of an official emergency. Our bestsellers were refillable Clorox wipes (the "disposable" sheets recyclable through TerraCycle) and Häagen-Dazs ice cream in insulated metal tubs.
All of the essential things people are buying (and bought in frenzy at the start: cleaning supplies; personal care; soap; pasta) are on Loop, and we’ve found consumers are comfortable with the reuse aspect, as the service is conveniently delivered by our logistics provider UPS, offers items in beautiful packages and was contactless prior to the pandemic.
Consumers can toss their empties in the Loop Tote with the same ease as throwing an item in the trash, and don’t need to do any cleaning themselves. Unlike the durable coffee cup systems and reusable bags hibernating now, health and safety protocols and industrial cleaning processes are in place in our reuse system.
Interestingly, as consumers look for a connection to what they buy and a meaningful way to shop, we are seeing competitors in the coming of COVID-19: the actual, modern-day milkman. Home delivery is important to consumers, as is shopping positively in a retro-style model, so if not for the social impacts, the no-contact and returnable packaging system is appealing.
From its initial launch to Paris, France and in 10 states in the Northeastern United States, Loop recently announced its expansion to all 48 contiguous states and is slated to officially go live nationwide this summer, which means more people soon will be able to order. The next phase of the shopping platform, currently all digital commerce, will be to integrate in retail locations, where consumers can return empty containers and shop for refills in-store.
We can’t project how or when retail will return to "normal," or what a new normal will look like. But by having met people where they are at home and online and establishing trust in a difficult situation, we anticipate consumers will continue to engage with Loop in a post-social distancing world.
Brands and retailers working towards plans for circularity can gain tangible returns even (or especially) now by reaching people through continued investment in their present and future. Putting this on the backburner in a health crisis is short-sighted. With so much to fear today, the opportunity to trust is one that consumers desire, and businesses are in a position to give.