Skip to main content

Food wastage, that is food lost by deterioration or discard, has both a financial and social cost, not to mention its contribution to global hunger. To emphasise the sheer magnitude of this issue, the FAO (2013) found that 1.4 billion hectares of the land used to grow food was wasted in 2007. This figure equates to an area larger than China or Canada, and only superseded by the size of Russia. Given this shameful figure, one might be surprised to know that many governments have, in fact, generated policies and legislation to improve food waste management, such as the avoidance of landfill. Whether or not they’ve been well-executed is another question entirely. Beyond legislation, another key part of the food waste equation has been rather neglected – pre-waste solutions in the private sector.

Generally, society places, perhaps too much, onus on the individual to limit food waste and reduce their use of plastic. What we should be doing instead is transferring some of this responsibility onto large food retailers, such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asada, and Morrisons. The reason being that they have direct links with consumers, farmers and processes, meaning they can influence most levels of the supply chain.

When food processors directly deal with big retailers through various contracts and agreements, they tend to impose strict conditions for deliveries and returning unsold products, which severely hinders food waste prevention. For example, when suppliers agree to deliver orders in a short-period of time, they often overstock to avoid penalties, which sometimes results in food waste. Furthermore, big retailers also require 70% of its shelf-life remaining for the products to be accepted, as stated in Mena, Adenso-Diaz & Yurt’s (2010) paper. This issue becomes particularly difficult for producers to navigate, especially for those with limited access to alternative channels to sell their stock, or if the products are sold under the retailers’ “own-brand” labels. With the latter issue, tolerance for slip-ups is small, as unsold products are unable to be directed.

Another key, and perhaps more concerning cause, is that some supermarkets now set cosmetic standards for their fruit and vegetables, as if the beauty industry’s standards for women wasn’t already enough. These requirements cause retailers to reject moderately imperfect-looking food. Interestingly, in an academic paper entitled European Retailers as Agents of Change Towards sustainability: The Case of Fruit Production in BrazilBritish retailers were named the primary culprits of setting these senseless aesthetics of fruit and vegetables in Europe, making perfectly edible produce unsellable.

So, yes, we have established that food retailers are instruments of change in the transition towards sustainable production methods. But, what strategies can food retailers actually employ to reduce food waste without compromising the safety of consumers. Below, I offer some recommendations for retailers to tackle this issue:

  1. Improve inventory management processes to decrease excess inventory and handling. In the U.S, Whole Foods and Targetadopted software, where they input the store-layout, and request that deliveries are stacked according to this sequencing.
  2. Increase communication and transparency between farmers and food processors, which may include, but not limited to enforcing a stricter time period for retailers to either amend or cancel an order.
  3. Sell “ugly” fruit and vegetables at a discount in-store (Asda and Morrisons are currently trailing this idea), donate surplus edible food to charity (e.g., Food CycleFare ShareNeighbourlyWRAP UK), or business-to-business transfer of excess food.
  4. Decrease or eliminate deals for consumers to discourage the excessive consumption of food (e.g., buy one get one free).
  5. Amend overly strict, and sometimes misleading product labelling. Consumers often misconstrue “best by” dates for expiration dates, causing people to throw away products prematurely. In most cases, labelling is up to the large food retailers, and are not standardised or regulated by an independent body. Kor, Prabhu & Esposito (2017) suggest that retailers should urge manufacturers to replace “best by” with “best if used by”.

Ultimately, reducing food waste is neither in the hands of the retailer or consumer. Instead, it requires a collaborative approach across the business supply chain, which spans across retailers, farmers, consumers, technology, social enterprises and food processors.

Georgia Hardisty is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.