Blog: Why is it so difficult to stop throwing away food?2023-05-17
Kristin Svärd shares some insights from her research; causes, effects, and solutions on how to prevent food waste.
It might seem like a problem that would be quite easy to solve, food waste. It easily resonates, and most people and organizations would probably agree with a “let’s stop throwing away food” mission. It is like my co-author puts it; No one wakes up in the morning thinking “today, I’m going to waste food”. So, why do we still waste 40 (!) percent of all food produced? If it is so obvious, and no one really has an interest in creating food waste, why does it still count for 8 percent of all global emission? Yes, you read it correctly, the food we throw away accounts for four times the emissions of the airline industry.
So, my colleagues and I set out to conduct research at a large food retailer chain in Sweden, which was coupled with a review of previous research, to get a systemic understanding of the connections between retailer and consumer food waste, and why we are still struggling to be sustainable in this regard.
Many retailers today have started to change their practices to both prevent and repurpose food waste. Yet sometimes retailers still throw away perfectly eatable food, partially brought to our attention by dumpster divers. Consumers, on the other hand, are still the biggest creators of food waste today. However, neither consumers nor retailers exist in a void, there is a crucial and daily interaction between retailers and consumers. Consumers buy food in the supermarket, and for some reason they thereafter go home and throw much of it away. So, what is it in this interface between retailers and consumers that makes both unable to stop throwing food away?
Our research show that it is this very interface that is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Let’s start with the retailer. The retailer is typically quite good at reducing food waste that they can make or save money on. No surprise there maybe, but what it means in practice is that they discount food since it still earns them more money than throwing the food in the bin, and they make their practices in handling food more effective to hinder food waste from arising in the first place for similar reasons. This is what we call “the win-win” feedback loop. It enables the retailers to make money while doing something good for the planet – yay. However, this loop eventually hits a wall as there are just a certain amount of these improvements which can be done. Then there are other initiatives, such as donating the food to a charity. These initiatives entail an increased cost, such as handling costs, or a loss of profit for the retailer by replacing sales of normally priced goods, which in turn creates a sort of “cost barrier” for the retailer and makes them more unlikely to implement such solutions.
In relation to customers, an important driver of food waste is the expectation we have on the appearance of the food. This especially applies to fruit and vegetables, where advertising by retailers, and competition over a fresh and appealing selection, makes the retailers throw away perfectly eatable food. Consumers select fruit and vegetables based on these aesthetic standards, leaving the retailer with the “unwanted ones”. This also leads the customers to throw away “unappealing” fruit and vegetables at home. Furthermore, the retailers’ competition for customers leads them to overstock goods, dump prices on popular goods, and create aggressive marketing campaigns. These, in turn, also lead the customers to over-purchase, as we are triggered by discounts and campaigns, resulting in household food waste.
What can we do to get out of this vicious circle of waste? Well, we can summarize this in three points mainly directed towards retailers:
• Recognize trade-offs
First, retailers need to recognize the limitations of the win-win approach and accept the existence of occasional trade-offs, such as handling costs for sorting food waste. If competitive dynamics makes this unactionable for retailers, it offers an opportunity for regulators to step in and adjust the incentive system in the marketplace.
Second, retailers can inform customers about the connection between their shopping and daily practices and food waste, as well as emphasizing the ecological footprint and value of food.
Finally, even though our research highlights the interlocking feedback loops between the retailer and the consumer, it also shows retailers’ dependence and interconnections with other actors in the food system, such as suppliers, competitors, and regulators. Therefore, a solution to the food waste problem will have to be a collaborative one, where multiple actors decide to work together for the common goal of reducing food waste for the overall well-being of the biosphere on which we are all depend.
Kristin Svärd, PhD Student in Business Administration