Newton: the growing issue of food waste – and what we can do about it

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By Tom Elton, business manager, Newton

Waste reduction charity WRAP reports that households throw away approximately 7.1m tonnes of food each year. A further 3.1m tonnes is thrown away having expired on shelves in stores or in the supply chain. Meanwhile, University of Edinburgh research claims the UK is still wasting 4.5 million tonnes of food[, simply because it does not meet shape or size ideals.

Many supermarkets have implemented waste reduction campaigns and ranges, including Tesco with Perfectly Imperfect, Lidl’s Too Good to Waste vegetable boxes and Asda’s original Wonky Veg initiative. However, a YouGov survey of 4,000 consumers commissioned by Newton last year revealed that 92% of respondents feel supermarkets could do more to combat food waste, with 69% of respondents citing the sale of imperfect fresh produce as the top method of preventing produce from being thrown away.

The majority of UK food waste is thrown away in the home. However, customers want to buy only what they need. Our research found that more than half (52%) of consumers want the option of buying loose fruit and vegetables, or to buy in smaller portions (45%). The single biggest thing consumers can do to combat food waste is to vote with their feet by buying loose, rather than packaged options.

Loose options are widely available on basic items, especially in larger stores. This action will encourage retailers to respond to demand by devoting more shelf space to loose products, or items in smaller packs. While retailers may be reluctant to do this as they are likely to achieve higher total sales if consumers continue to buy larger packs, smaller pack sizes tend to have a larger margin, so they will gain some of this sales loss back in profitability. 

Supply chains

Retailers devote a lot of time, energy and resources into trying to minimise waste in their supply chains, whilst still maintaining high availability and sales. But there is more that retailers could do to make their supply chains even more precisely calibrated to consumers’ needs, thus reducing waste in the supply chain. For example, retailers can minimise transport costs by making sure each tray they send to stores contains as much product as possible. However, with short life products in smaller stores, this approach can guarantee waste on all but the largest sales weeks. Regularly reviewing this for each product and store, especially in environments with declining sales that some retailers face, can lead to significant reductions in waste, without impacting sales at all. Decisions about which products are sold in each store, and how much space each gets, are also huge drivers of waste. As retailers introduce new products to drive sales, they also need to eliminate others and make sure the space dedicated to the product is aligned to the demand. This would help avoid situations where filling the shelves, which is an important driver of footfall and sales, requires more product than will actually be sold.

Controlling stock

Almost a third (30%) of consumers cite food sold in packaging that better prolongs the life of the product as the way to reduce what is thrown away in the home. However, retailers can reduce waste for customers and for themselves by reducing the amount of stock they hold, thus speeding up the supply chain and adding life to the product for the consumer. Retailers can hold several days’ worth of stock as a ‘buffer’ against a surge in demand or delays in the supply chain, which can be very costly when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables. This is because products with high water content, like tomatoes, lose moisture and weight in storage, which means the customer pays less for them at the till if they are sold by weight. For the customer, this also means the product ripens more quickly, increasing the likelihood of waste, and reducing freshness and taste. Overall, getting control of stock holding is a key lever that retailers can pull that’s a real win-win for them and the customer.

‘Defected’ products

Reducing the 4.5 million tonnes of food waste rejected as ‘out of customer specification’ requires collaboration between retailers and customers. The success of products like ASDA’s ‘wonky veg’ shows that customers can be responsive to fresh food with small blemishes or odd shapes. However, lines like these represent a tiny proportion of produce sold in the UK, so only represent a start in this area. Making significant progress in this area requires retailers to work with their suppliers to allow a higher proportion of each season’s crop onto shelves, starting with working right up to their current specifications. Many suppliers, conscious of retailers’ market power over them and their focus on quality, will reject product that is within spec, but that they perceive the retailer will see as inferior. For example, 3-4% of a potato crop is sorted out based on minor skin blemishes that are in spec and will be peeled off by the customer. Working with the staff on the sorting lines to gradually allow these into bags will reduce potato waste by millions of tonnes per year, without having any impact on sales. Other defects require customer education before they can be included on shelves. For example, Spanish citrus growers maintain that the tastiest, juiciest fruit are those from the outside of the trees, as they have had the most exposure to the sun. However, these also have the most skin blemishes, and therefore won’t be chosen by the UK consumer. As a result, retailers ensure this kind of fruit is considered out of spec, increasing waste.

Taking action

To make any headway in solving this type of food waste, supermarkets will first have to decide how to communicate initiatives to shoppers who are already overwhelmed by in-store information on everything from new launches to promotions and seasonal activity. We suggest that retail bodies and government collaborate on a cohesive plan to get the relevant messages across to consumers. Encouragement from government alone is rarely effective and there is almost always a commercial driver needed so progress can be made at pace, such as in the case of the levy to reduce plastic use.

Of course, consumers cannot expect supermarkets to tackle waste in isolation. They also have a part to play – both in understanding the commercial realities faced by retailers to meet shopper demands for quality, convenient food at a price they can afford – by making changes of their own.