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Retailers Could Be the Most Important Player in Reducing Food Waste

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 business models? 

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 food, 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 system? 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 face.

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? 

Consumers? 

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 Waste

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 coalition 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 ReFED — 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 organizations 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 products (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 forthcoming study from a major retail chain found that 80 percent 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 Drawdown, reducing food waste is the single greatest solution to global warming.

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