Campaigners for action on food waste have had much to celebrate recently. The Rockefeller Foundation launched YieldWise, a $130 million initiative to tackle loss between farm and market and demonstrating how the world can halve food loss by 2030. This coincided with the launch of Champions 12.3, a collaboration of 30 executives and ministers united in their dedication to meeting SDG target 12.3.
This is an excellent response from signatories including Tesco, Unilever and Nestlé — the sort of purposeful leadership we need to see in 2016. Does this mean food retailers have already cracked it and successfully steered their industry away from a full-blown reputational crisis? Far from it. Ambition must quickly be followed by action because food waste is a highly visible, emotional issue. Rarely have consumers been so animated and demanding of business to change the way it operates.
A backlash like no other
Where has this groundswell come from? In the UK, public awareness of food waste seems to have been acquired almost overnight, but in reality the number of foodbank users has been growing steadily for years. Meanwhile the UK food industry re-directs a painfully inadequate 2 percent of fit-for-purpose surplus food to those in need. Yet as recently as last year the issue remained at the fringes of social consciousness.
But now we know — and now we care. A raft of proposed legislation across Europe, plus a number of high-profile media exposés have lit the short fuse of consumer ire and it’s burning bright.
Finding a logistical solution — the 3 first steps
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Food retailers clearly need to get their house in order, and fast. Top-down ambition is a crucial first step because it frees up corporate resources to explore new technology solutions such as Neighbourly Food (my own food re-distribution platform).
And of course, they should collaborate. As every forward-thinking CEO will recognise, this is an industry issue and as such it needs a pre-competitive approach. Going it alone means duplication of effort, message fragmentation and reputational risk. This is one situation where there really is safety in numbers.
Digital redistribution platforms create capacity but this is worthless unless met by grassroots action — waste will simply move from store to community. If more surplus food is to make it to the mouths of the hungry, then local people need to step up to help out in the final mile.
Corporate ambition meets community action
They already are, of course. As we might expect, the public are more than willing to help, providing they know exactly how, where and when they are needed. In the UK, Neighbourly Food has been distributing Marks & Spencer surplus food for six months now by inviting local people to get involved in very specific ways. Quite simply, we ask them to tell us where food is needed and then to come and collect it.
We could probably find the soup kitchens, homeless outreach programmes and foodbanks without their help. But only local people know about the independent community cafes, day centres, housing associations, rehabilitation centres, cookery classes, children’s clubs and welfare support groups that do brilliant things with surplus food across the land. And when these local people offer to collect, the logistical challenges of distribution are removed in an instant — meaning more food to more deserving people.
This is the real future of food surplus distribution — the ambition of big business met by the enthusiasm of a citizen-centred movement of ordinary people who understand how good it feels to ‘be neighbourly’ and offer a few hours’ spare time.
Turning problem into opportunity — steps 4 and 5
With citizens onside, corporate reputation teams really are a few small steps from the ‘relevant’ and ‘useful’ contribution to which they increasingly aspire. Because the inconvenient truth of the food waste dilemma is that retailer surplus shouldn’t really be the priority. Together, retailers throw away about 250,000 tonnes of food every year through operational inefficiency. This compares to at least 4.2 million tonnes thrown away by households — that’s up to £700 of groceries per household per annum straight in the bin.
Society clearly needs help — and brilliant and creative brands are masters of influence. Given the extent of public engagement, there’s huge opportunity for brands that step up to lead the re-education and re-purposing of society towards more sustainable behaviour.
But there’s one further opportunity. Retailers must also capitalise on the local connections made through community re-distribution collaborations. Research shows that citizens want to partner with brands — they expect your store to make a contribution to local community as part of a moral licence to trade. Your front-line colleagues feel this every day, and because they live in these communities they’ll expect you to empower them to act.
With Neighbourly.com you can do just that. By combining food re-distribution, financial support and volunteering into a single ‘corporate giving’ platform, we help businesses create value from physical, local connections at international scale. Clients including Marks & Spencer, Starbucks, Heineken and OVO Energy are already learning about the incredible power of connecting in the communities where they operate.
It’s time to turn this around
Many food retailers are expected to announce their own redistribution solutions in the coming months. We may even achieve a ‘new normal’ within 2016, given the moral and reputational imperative to do so. But food retailers must act quickly and with confidence to win back the hearts and minds of irritated customers — and trust that an increasingly socially responsible society is ready not just to forgive, but to work alongside them to create meaningful, lasting change.