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Image: French retailer Intermarche was the first to launch a massive campaign highlighting the beauty of ugly produce | Intermarche/Facebook
If we want to reduce food waste, we need consumer-led solutions — which can be sparked by retailers. Brands, manufacturers and other food system actors get their message through to consumers if retailers open the door for them.
This summer, I had the opportunity to observe the arduous and rigorous process
of a large CPG company launching a new product. I got a glimpse of what’s under
the hood when a global player puts its weight behind research and development.
This company had the funds to do extensive consumer studies — including surveys,
interviews and more. It was able to spend the money to find out what this
product had to do in order to resonate with the most fickle and complex member
of our food system: consumers. It was a huge lift, and it took an impressive
amount of sophisticated research and coordination between various departments.
Also this summer, I worked with a relatively small grocery retail chain on a
similar consumer research and development project. This was a completely
different experience: Within a week, the retailer had conceived of, written and
deployed a widespread survey for consumers. A few weeks later, the retailer had
survey responses from more than a thousand customers and was quickly able to
synthesize the results into a clear recommendation to the company.
What contrast do you notice here? In summary: A large CPG company spent a ton of
money to squeeze out every last drop of data; while a relatively small retailer
got more data much faster, as if by the wave of a magic wand. I couldn’t help
but think, “Is this how this is supposed to work?”
If you’ve worked in R&D in the food space, you’ve probably asked that same
question; and perhaps even felt a bit of the resentment many CPG companies feel
towards their retail counterparts for having such uninhibited access to
consumers and consumer data. While CPG companies have to toil over expensive
surveys and complex research, retailers have countless “research subjects”
literally waltzing into their stores every day.
So, how should this disproportionate access to consumers affect the onus of
food-waste reduction efforts? Who bears the most responsibility for reducing
food waste within the food system — given the diversity of roles, locations and
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) quantified food waste by
sector and region in a groundbreaking 2014
study, which answered the question — of the
40 percent of food going to waste globally, where does that come from
geographically; and which actors are most responsible? Turns out, the most
consistent offender group is comprised of farmers and producers. So, if farms
waste the most
they should pay the most for waste reduction, right?
No. Producers are the lowest paid, most exploited, and most underappreciated
member of our food system. It’s wrong to say that farmers and ranchers should be
the financiers of food-waste reduction. How can producers be responsible for
food waste, when they are at the mercy of the unsustainable standards set by
the rest of the food
Farms already jump through hoops to meet the arbitrary and strict demands of
manufacturers, such as maintaining vegetable size/shape standards, which keep
“ugly” vegetables unharvested in the fields. Putting the burden of food waste
and loss reduction on farms would just exacerbate the inequities they already
So, just because a particular food system sector ends up with the largest amount
of wasted food in its lap, doesn’t necessarily mean it should bear the cost of
reducing that waste. Who should?
In North America and Oceania, especially, consumers are — by a wide
margin — the worst food wasters. So naturally, food-waste reduction efforts
should be focused on them, right? That’s the basis of food waste consumer
education efforts — such as the NRDC’s “Save the
Food“ campaign; the cute and tragic video,
“Extraordinary Life and Times of a Strawberry;”
and the Anthony Bourdain documentary, Wasted! The Story of Food
Consumer-education campaigns like these are fun, engaging and widespread. But at
the end of the day, consumer education is hard. It’s hard because it is very
expensive to reach people through advertising and media. And why should a
nonprofit like NRDC have to bear the financial burden of educating consumers
about food waste, especially when there are companies with huge marketing
budgets that have stated food waste reduction goals of their own? The reality
is, people aren’t thinking about reducing food waste when they are waiting for
the bus, or driving in traffic on the highway, or the other places marketers put
the clever “Save the Food” ads. Where are people thinking about food waste? My
prediction: while at the grocery store.
If there’s any place to warn people about the $1,500 they will lose per year if
they waste as much food as the average US consumer, it’s in the grocery store.
This is where some of us are at our greatest degree of thriftiness: coupons in
hand, sale items in sight, cost-per-unit net weight calculations buzzing through
our heads. We are thinking about that moment when we get through the checkout
and are forced to reckon with the grim repercussions of shopping while hungry: a
larger-than-expected bill, and a shopping cart full of impulse purchases. In
other words, we are already thinking about saving money when in a grocery store.
It’s also where we are thinking about our food values. Is this product organic?
Non-GMO? Healthy? Sustainable?
Capturing a consumer while at the grocery store is easy, because they are
already so susceptible to messaging. So, why not meet them with effective
messaging about food waste? “Want to save money? Put down those coupons and
just make sure you actually eat all the food you buy here today!”
But the FAO study showed that in most corners of the world, food retailers and
distributors actually waste the least food of any group. Isn’t it unfair to
suggest they take on the most responsibility? I don’t think so. Why? Because
they have the more influence over consumers than any other food system actor.
Brands, manufacturers and other actors within the food system only get their
message through to consumers if retailers open the door for them. If we want to
reduce food waste, we need a consumer-led solution, and consumer-led solutions
can be sparked by grocery retailers.
I’m not suggesting that retailers aren’t doing anything to reduce food waste
already. Many retailers have extensive food donation programs, and partnerships
with local and national food rescue and hunger relief organizations. FMI – The
Food Industry Association – which has many prominent retailers as members,
co-founded the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. Last month, the Consumer Goods
Forum formed a
to reduce food waste that includes Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Walmart.
Kroger has formed an entire
foundation around the topic;
and along with Walmart, has made significant contributions to
— the foremost US food waste nonprofit. Retail is already doing a lot to reduce
food waste. But if we want to solve food waste, we need consumers to care a
lot about it. And if we are going to get consumers to care about food waste, we
need retailers to do even more.
The entire food supply chain is controlled by consumer demand; therefore, all
the waste within the supply chain is, too. How can retailers become the
platforms for communicating the solutions we want to see? It’s not
controversial! Ninety-five percent of consumers want to reduce food waste, so
retailers have full rein to evangelize for food-waste reduction without worry of
being political in either direction. What should this look like?
So far, retailers have focused on reducing their own waste (makes sense), and
have done so by partnering with
who pick up and redistribute their unsellable food from within their stores.
This is an important system to support, because it’s also the underpinning of
the hunger relief system that keeps millions of people from going hungry. But
more can be done to activate the rest of the food system.
The most brilliant example I have seen of retailers dipping their toes into
cross-industry food-waste reduction is the use of those bargain bags in the
produce section, filled with slightly damaged or close-to-expiration produce
items — they are so simple, but the implication is profound. By selling a bundle
of imperfect produce items for a buck, the retailer is sending multiple
important messages. It’s telling the consumer, “Look, this stuff is still edible
and nutritious, produce beauty standards don’t matter, and this is a good way to
save money!” Meanwhile, it’s telling farmers and producers to “go ahead and send
your less-than-perfect produce to us instead of letting it rot in the field” —
creating an incentive for farms to reduce their waste, too. It’s also sending an
important message to the retailer’s own investors, because instead of paying
someone else to haul away the food as waste, the retailer is recovering at least
part of its sunk costs.
Ugly produce bargains are just the start. There are a growing number of packaged
products that also help to reduce food waste. The Upcycled Food
Association (UFA) found in a study this year
that there are already more than 400 upcycled food
(made from otherwise wasted ingredients) on the market. UFA has over 100 members
now, each providing a unique CPG or ingredient that reduces the food waste
outside of grocery stores.
By selling an upcycled avocado leaf tea in New
York, a grocery store can reduce avocado waste in Philly. By selling an
upcycled fish jerky, a grocery store in New Mexico can help to reduce fish
waste in Seattle. By selling an upcycled dried fruit product in North
America, a grocery chain can reduce on-farm food loss in Africa.
It’s no longer the CSR, foundation or sustainability staffers at a retailer
leading the charge on food waste; it’s the buyers. Grocery retailers can make
good on their waste and sustainability goals simply by buying and highlighting
the right products, products which reduce food waste.
And who is the linchpin of the whole operation? Consumers! Grocery retailers can
unlock a consumer-led food-waste solution, but will consumers buy it? The
research says, “Yes.” A new study from a major retail chain found that 80% of
consumers were interested in buying upcycled food. More importantly, more than
half of respondents of the study said they would have a more positive
impression of a grocery store that carried upcycled food products.
So, yes — we need grocery retailers to do more in the fight against food waste.
But it’s not really more work, it’s just different work. By carrying
products that fight food waste in store, grocery stores can make money while
letting consumers be the engine of the food waste movement. Our environment
depends on it: According to the foremost organization focused on ranking climate
change solutions, Project
reducing food waste is the single greatest solution to global warming.