Consumer engagement: Fitting the final piece of the food waste puzzle

With edie's engagement month in full swing, George Ogleby investigates one of the biggest challenges facing Britain's circular economy transition: consumer engagement on food waste.

Let’s start with the positive: when it comes to food waste reduction efforts, the UK has taken some significant steps that have yielded strong results. During a recent five-year period, levels fell by a stunning 21%, and pioneering campaigns and initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment and Love Food Hate Waste continue to influence change. Recent figures from the private sector reveal that UK retailers and manufacturers generated an estimated £100m in food waste savings between 2012 and 2015.

But the bigger picture does not look so promising: the UK remains one of the most wasteful of the EU’s 27 member states, throwing away 14.3 million tonnes (mt) a year. According to WRAP estimates, more than half of this food waste total – around 7.3mt – derives from the home, equating to around £470 worth of food being needlessly discarded every year by the average household. 

Adding to the concern is the fact that progress to address the household food waste problem has stalled. Falls in food prices and rising incomes have seemingly reduced the incentive for people to cut their food waste, with the food industry failing to meet a commitment to cut household food waste by 5% between 2012 and 2015.

While policymakers have faced criticism for funding cuts to key Government agencies and the steady deterioration of the UK’s waste management system, a large portion of the blame has been placed on the supermarkets. The ‘big four’ (Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons), in particular, have been subject to a host of accusations related to the propagation of a discount culture and an industrial model which fosters a deliberate over-abundance of products – as highlighted by celebrity chef-turned environmental campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his Hugh’s War on Waste TV programme last year.

Collection consistancy

But there is no easy answer. In fact, this is one of the biggest and most complex challenges facing sustainable business today. How can the public and private sector convince us – consumers – to change our behaviours and stop throwing away food; to avoid overfilling our plates and buying unnecessary items?

The first and perhaps most important step towards a circular economy-based food system is a reliable and consistant recycling system right across the country. So says the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) director of food loss and waste Liz Goodwin, who joined the organisation last year after nine successful years as chief executive of WRAP.

We need more consistency,” Goodwin tells edie. “It’s bonkers to think that we can try to carry on without trying to get more consistent collections. There’s so much confusion – we have evidence from years of surveying people that individuals are confused by the different recycling schemes.

“The first step is consistency in what materials are collected, and then we need consistency in how they are collected. That’s a transition which will take a number of years because we’ve got a whole country with infrastructure sitting there and we need to build in that consistency over time. But we definitely need to go in that direction.”

Goodwin also believes it is equally important for Britain’s supermarkets to step up awareness-raising efforts and change people’s perceptions of food waste – and that starts with identifying behaviour change best-practice.

“We need most people to be doing things that we consider best-practice” Goodwin adds. “But that’s quite a big ask. The retailers can do more in terms of pack sizes and re-sealable packs and making sure we can use food for longer.”

Providing shoppers with helpful advice on using food storage; helping them to understand food labelling, and supplying them with leftover recipe ideas are all crucial steps to improve consumer awareness, Goodwin asserts. The former WRAP boss advocates the rollout of specific behaviour change campaigns – such as Asda’s successful campaign last year, which helped shoppers save on average of £57 a year through a series of waste-reduction actions based on customer insight.

“The retailers have been doing quite a lot of good work in terms of displays around the shops and tips on how to use food leftovers on their website – we need more of that,” Goodwin adds. “The more everyone does to make sure we are moving in the right direction, the better.”

New business models

Goodwin’s views are echoed by food waste activist Tristram Stuart, who recently appeared before the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra) alongside fellow campaigner Fearnley-Whittingstal to provide evidence on food waste in England. Stuart, founder of environmental campaign group Feedback, believes the retailers have an “awful lot of power” to help their customers to recycle more and reduce food waste.

Stuart references the latest figures of household waste from WRAP, which he suggests are not truly measured on people’s food waste in bins. The dataset is weak, Stuart says, as it is based on the organic data on household food waste, with no distinction between edible food and organic waste related to food. This means that non-edibles such as banana skin, egg shells, chicken bones count as food waste in the data.

Stuart concedes that WRAP lacks the capital and resources to provide forensic analysis of food waste. As a potential solution to this predicament, the campaigner has put forward a novel suggestion which involves retail involvement in recycling collections.

“The latest figures are not actually measured on people’s food waste in bins,” he explains. “To do that would cost a couple of hundred thousand pounds – it’s my view that supermarkets should pay for that. It would be helpful information for them and what would be very interesting is to try to track how much people waste and whether it correlates to which supermarkets they shop in principally.

“If we can discover, for example, that a Tesco shopper wastes less than a Sainsbury’s shopper, we can start to look into what the different supermarkets have done and how successful they are. The comparison will come not just between different supermarkets, but different retail models entirely.”

Stuart’s Feedback charity engages with businesses to help identify where retailers are contributing to waste, and how they can mitigate the issue without affecting their core business model. He praises the recent shift away from scrap multi-buy promotions across food ranges towards offers based on a lower price structure.

Stuart also cities his own input on the waste strategy of US home delivery service Blue Apron, which prepares and distributes high-quality ingredients to people’s doorstep, enabling the individual to customise their own meal. Blue Apron carried out a food waste study which established that its customers waste a good deal less than typical supermarket customers.

“[The Blue Apron model] suggests that you can dramatically reduce your food waste if you buy your food from a different retail interface than a supermarket model,” Stuart says. “That is supported by common sense and logic. Supermarkets are built upon the premise of creating food supply in abundance on a huge display, and the reason why they do that is that it triggers people’s impulse to buy, even beyond what they are likely to use.

“If you escape from that marketing model and go into a different marketing interface, you don’t keep triggering people’s response to buy more than they need. My challenge to supermarkets is to dig down into that really interesting dataset and see which retail models are conducive to using more or less.”

Community approach

Of course, a business model overhaul among the hugely profitable groceries market will not happen overnight. But in some cases, supermarkets are realising that a food model based on circular economy principles can actually be well aligned with their own values and ambitions. 

The Co-operative Group is among those that have recently developed a wide-ranging and ambitious set of food waste commitments, such as including refrigeration advice on products; and working with suppliers and scientific advisors to explore different ways of extending shelf life.

In 2015, Co-op started a full review of the shelf life of all its products, which has produced impressive results. The use of ‘skinpacks’ and vacuum packs for meat packaging has extended the life of steaks and beef joints by up to nine days, while special packaging for asparagus has given the vegetable an extra two days of shelf life. Co-op is also the only major retailer to put storage advice on packaging for loose products.

For the Co-operative Group’s environment manager Iain Ferguson, a business model that provides a positive influence on customers’ food consumption habits is a natual step in the right direction.

“We think that because we’re a community store in the local environment, shopping at Co-Op can reduce food waste,” Ferguson says. “If you shop at well-stocked community store little and often, you can help to ease the problem. It’s like using our shop as your fridge or larder, but one where somebody else worries about keeping stock rotation going and keeping food fresh.”

Ferguson notes the often “confusing” nature of food package labelling – specifically the lack of clarity about ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates – which are estimated to conribute towards an estimated £1m worth of unnecessary household waste each year. The distinction between ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ is clarified in Co-op’s monthly food magazine, which also dedicates a whole page on recipe advice for leftover food.

As a founding member of the Courtauld Commitment, Co-op uses the voluntary scheme to hone its approach on giving customers information. “It gives us valuable insights and helps us to look at customers in a different way,” he says. “They do customer profiling to give us information as to how we could best tackle the various demographic groups. WRAP do a regular review of the labelling on packs and give us helpful feedback – for example, they helped us to drive out the free one-day purchase on fresh poultry because there was evidence it wasn’t necessary.”

Looking again at the bigger picture, Ferguson stresses that the issue of food waste cannot be tackled without collaboration both within the sector and with external actors. Co-op redistributes 500 tonnes of surplus fresh food from depots via FareShare and other charities, and is also a member of the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) ‘Working on Waste‘ campaign, which brings UK food and grocery companies together to help their employees reduce household food waste.

“Retailers have all got to get involved in giving the same messages and giving the right promotional activity to stop driving up food waste,” Ferguson concluds. “It’s about giving customers the right information. Working together, if we get the same message everywhere, then the customers sees the same message everywhere and therefore understands it better.”

Read all of edie’s engagement month content here.

The Co-operative Group at edie’s Sustainability Communications Conference

Co-op’s sustainable food manager Sarah Wakefield is among the expert speakers at edie’s Sustainability Communications Conference, taking place on 16 May at the Inmersat Conference Centre in London. 

Wakefield will be speaking in a panel discussion about ecolabels and standards, discussing whether this is a form of ‘greenwashing’ or actually a key enabler for consumers to make better choices.

Find out more about the Conference and register to attend here

George Ogleby & Luke Nicholls

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