I was staggered when I read that supermarkets are making millions of pounds a year off food waste that we, their consumers, produce. Then I reread it – it is actually BILLIONS. At the top of the food chain, Tesco makes a £4bn profit each year from the food wasted in homes. Moreover, food businesses like supermarkets are not legally mandated to report how much food they waste or how much waste they influence throughout the supply chain. (This can change – see here how to make a difference and urge the government to make food waste reporting mandatory for food companies!)
According to WRAP, 70% of post-farm food waste (we do not have any data on farm-level food waste yet) is created in our homes. 16% occurs in manufacturing, 12% in hospitality and food service, and only 3% is attributed to retail (i.e. supermarkets). What WRAP neglects to explore is how the food system, and in particular retailers, contribute to the food waste at household level or farm level. They may only account for 3% of food waste on their own premises, but retailers are responsible for food waste in our homes and on farms in a variety of ways.
Our individual actions and choices do not happen in a vacuum. For Food Waste Action Week 2021, I want to shine a spotlight on the systems around us that contribute to that 70%, in two Long Reads. This first one investigates the ways that supermarkets are responsible for waste throughout the supply chain, including how they encourage us to overbuy food and make those billion-pound profits off the food in our household bins.
Have you ever walked into a supermarket and wondered why they all look relatively the same? More likely than not, the fruit and veg is at the front; the bakery and/or milk is at the back; and the confectionary is in the middle.
This is not a coincidence: the layout of supermarkets is designed to make you spend as much money as possible. There are studies devoted to ‘optimising’ consumer expenditure, increasing the amount of time spend in supermarkets, and maximising ‘exposure’ of products to customers.
Let us start with the fruit and veg section. It is often well-lit to make the skin on the vegetables shine and appear as appealing as possible, and you might have an impulse to buy an extra shiny apple. It is also argued that buying ‘healthy’ items at the beginning makes us feel good, and not so bad about impulse-buying ‘unhealthy’ foods in the rest of the shop.
Your next staple will probably be milk or eggs – they will not be anywhere near the fruit and veg, and eggs are sometimes hidden, literally making you go on an egg hunt. The next staple is bread, and that is probably quite far away too. It is likely you will have to pass many other eye-catching offers on your way, and the journey means you spend a lot more time in the store, making it more likely you will buy other things.
Confectionary is usually placed in the middle of the store, so you will have to pass it twice: once on your way to collect your staples and then back again to get to the checkout. Double the temptation! Some stores also place confectionary on the bottom few shelves, so if you are shopping with children, they are more likely to see the colourful packaging and pester you to buy something. A lot of sweet and savoury snacks are also placed in the area where customers queue to pay.
All of this clever use of space is to make you buy as much food as possible. You might be thinking: “but it is everyone’s responsibility to only buy what they need”. Yet many studies about store layout have been conducted by psychologists; supermarkets actively manipulate our brains to overconsume. This research shows that 90% of people impulse-buy at least occasionally and 30-50% of purchases are impulse purchases. The same paper reveals that revenues are highly dependent on these impulse sales.
People make decisions based on multiple factors, and marketing, product placement and use of space are powerful influencers. No wonder most supermarkets look the same – they are all using the tried-and-tested store layout that encourages us to buy more than we had planned.
Promotions and bulk selling
None of these are new revelations. A House of Lords Committee report in 2014 made the same conclusions: that retailers are passing the burden of food waste to the consumer. Baroness Scott of Needham Market, the chairwoman of the committee, told The Independent on Sunday: “At the moment, [retailers] are causing this waste and yet it doesn’t show up on their statistics .… You can look at raw data and say, ‘Well, actually the supermarkets are doing pretty well’, but it’s when you start to see what’s happening with the food that you get a different picture.”
The report particularly highlighted the buy-one-get-one-free culture (BOGOF), and accused supermarkets of “luring” consumers to buy their excess stock. Sometimes BOGOF offers are trying to promote a new product, but often they are not pre-empted; supermarkets put food on sale when they have inadvertently ordered too much of it themselves. This “shifts the blame” onto consumers. Morrisons attempted to rectify this culture and changed BOGOF to “Buy One, Get One Free to Freeze” to try and encourage customers to store excess food in their freezer, but that does not have seemed to have stuck, and does not solve the root problem of selling excess food.
A lot of research has pointed out that food that is bought in bulk often goes to waste; customers do not always have the option of buying smaller quantities of produce, for instance are forced to buy 1kg of vegetables at a time (think carrots or potatoes). This is significant: WRAP estimates that potatoes are one of the main foodstuffs that are wasted in the UK. Yet their campaigns focus on consumers using their potatoes, rather than mandating that supermarkets sell potatoes in smaller bags.
Nevertheless, as others point out, having smaller bags of produce might result in more plastic waste even if food waste decreases. A solution could be to sell loose produce and encourage customers to bring their own bags.
It is not the concern of the supermarket if you end up wasting some of the food because you bought too much – there are no penalties for them if their customers end up throwing away the food they were persuaded to buy. This excess food, as I mention above, is not even calculated into their food waste statistics. As demonstrated above, supermarkets make million or billion pound profits off the food we end up throwing away. There is currently no incentive for them to be more responsible for our overconsumption, and to encourage their customers to buy food with care.
Unrealistic aesthetic standards – and why ‘wonky veg’ schemes might not be helping
Moving away from the supermarket floor, it is important to note that supermarkets influence the whole food supply chain. As I cover in another blog, Feedback found that farmers grossly overproduce food to meet supermarket demand, including having to adhere to strict aesthetic standards (e.g., particular sizes and shapes of produce). One farmer said that he used to grow a third more food than he intended to sell, “just to make sure that the supermarket buyer didn’t have a tantrum if you ran short”.
There is an argument that consumers drive this demand for ‘perfect’ fruits and vegetables. But the phenomenon is relatively recent. According to Fresh by Susanne Freidberg (2009), the obsession with ‘perfect’ items was driven by aggressive marketing tactics in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, fruit farmers in the USA tried to outcompete each other with more and more ambitions advertising, and their produce had to live up to these new standards. The California Fruit Growers Exchange “established strict quality grades based on size, shape, colour and degree of flawlessness”, and without these, farmers would not be able to sell under the CFGE label (page 145).
With greater means of transportation and refrigeration, produce could be sold all over the world, and these standards gained global dominance. As a result, consumers became accustomed to such items. Now it is hard to imagine seeing supermarket aisles full of fruits and vegetables of different shapes and sizes; we are so used to seeing totally uniform items, as if they were all clones of one another.
We must also be cautious of companies that monetise the waste stream. Schemes like wonky veg and companies like ODDBOX or Imperfect Foods have been hailed as saviours of food waste, yet they may contribute to the problem. Writer Emily Atkin points out that Imperfect Foods compete with community farms in the US and this farmer explains that “ugly” produce can become canned goods and ingredients for the hospitality sector.
Wonky veg schemes incentivise farmers to produce even more food, as they are expected to meet the new quota for wonky veg consumers on top of producing enough for supermarket standards. The solution is to remove cosmetic standards altogether, so farmers are not incentivised to overproduce at all.
What is the solution?
Firstly, supermarket layouts must prioritise reduction of household food waste above profit margins. Staples like fruit and veg, break, milk and eggs must be laid out close together, and BOGOF offers must cease to exist.
Secondly, there must always be options to buy loose produce to minimise overbuying in bulk.
Thirdly, aesthetic standards for fruits and veg must stop, and the culture for perfect foods must change. In an ideal world, companies like ODDBOX and Imperfect Foods would not exist.
Finally, and most urgently, it must be legally mandated that supermarkets and other food companies disclose how much food they waste throughout the supply chain. Feedback has an action you can take now to urge the government to make food waste reporting mandatory – it takes two minutes!