About one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US $1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, according to a report by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Resources Institute (WRI). What this means, the report states, is that when this figure is converted to calories, about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. Here in the United States, it's estimated that we throw away nearly 40 percent of our food.
It’s little wonder, then, that the topic of food waste is deserving of serious scrutiny from a diverse group of corporations, NGOs, trade groups and governments — worldwide. Rhetoric is now leading to action.
Case in point: France became the first country in the world to pass a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food. The beneficiaries of this new law will be food banks and other charitable organizations.
Closer to home, in 2015, Seattle became the first city in the U.S. to impose a new city law that “requires residents and businesses do not put food scraps, compostable paper, yard waste, and recyclables in their garbage.”
Consumers have a long history of not liking waste (think the three Rs philosophy and the old adage “waste not, want not”). The Hartman Group’s Sustainability: Transparency 2015 report finds that among consumers familiar with the term sustainability, 44 percent defined the term as meaning “recycle, reuse and reduce.”
Along with regulatory mandates, such thinking has played a large role in influencing manufacturers, in particular, to recycle, reduce packaging and minimize pollution. And yet until very recently food waste has been less on the radar of other businesses, especially within food retail and restaurant segments.
This might stem from the fact that prior to now there’s been little social or cultural pressure. Our analysts in Hartman Retainer Services find that consumers assume food waste is being dealt with responsibly at corporate levels and worry more about it at a personal level. They point to startups like “out-of-date-food” supermarket Daily Table in Boston and FoodShare (run by Starbucks) as showing promise for being in step with consumer beliefs about sustainability, especially when it comes to waste.
The social conversation is getting louder on the topic, yet most retailers and restaurant chains don't talk about the efforts they’re taking to rethink food waste. This is despite the fact that in the right context, food stakeholders can appeal to customers’ practical dislike of waste simply by telling them what they already do with imperfect or surplus food.
Food manufacturers, retailers and food service operators can also appeal to consumers' desire to avoid wasting food themselves. Consumers worry more about their own food waste first, rather than that of companies, a concern driven in part by personal finances and the ideas of value.
As examples, Hartman Retainer Services analysts cite that club store shoppers, in particular, express dissatisfaction regarding food waste and spoilage. They wonder if purchases that seem like deals on larger quantities are in fact values.
One club store shopper told us: “I go shopping almost every day. I learned my lesson from buying so many big packs of things. Why was I buying all that meat? Now I plan a meal and go and get the foods rather than plan too far in advance and food gets wasted.”
Low-income consumers voice similar concerns: “I got a great deal on a bag of five heads of lettuce but threw half of it away before we could eat it all,” another consumer said. “No savings there!” Similarly, with diners in restaurants increasingly dining alone or seeking small portions, flexibility in being able to take away leftovers is not an insignificant detail in light of wasted food in food service settings.
What do our analysts suggest? For starters, adopting sustainable practices and being transparent about practices as they relate to food waste should be thought about in terms of long-term relevancy rather than driving short-term sales. For consumers today, when sustainability and personal benefits meet, they are given the opportunity to “feel good” about products they purchase and use.
For shoppers and diners, helping control food waste on a scale larger than the household contributes to positive thinking about community and helps to position brands as good citizens.
Keep these opportunities in mind:
To learn how you can benefit from our thinking, contact Shelly Balanko, Ph.D., SVP at: firstname.lastname@example.org
As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.