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How Can Retailers Cut Down On Food Waste?

This article describes the main drivers for waste at the retailer level, a case study and top tips for shopping.
Graphic showing supermarket shelves full of baked goods, a shopper selecting one and a person in the foreground checking off a list.
© EIT Food

The retail sector holds a key position in the supply chain – centrally placed, looking backwards towards the supplier and producer and looking forwards to the consumer. Supermarkets therefore have a strong influence on both ends. Their actions and decisions regarding the quality and quantity of food products dictate those of suppliers. Through purchasing and ordering policies, discount policies, service levels, etc, they influence both food consumption and food waste. Supermarkets shape how much food we buy, how we store and cook it, and what food products are available to us, in what form.

Food is wasted at the retail level due to the limited shelf life of perishable foods, variability in demand in particular for fresh produce, overstocking, poor prediction of sales creating surplus stock, and damaged packaging. And we’ve looked already at the problem of over specifying the cosmetic standards of fresh fruit and vegetables where items can be rejected for being too small, too big or varying too much in size, being wonky, misshapen, ‘ugly’, the ‘wrong’ colour, or having blemishes and skin marks.

What can retailers do to cut down on waste?

Retailers have the power to reduce in store food waste and influence others across the supply chain. Some retailers are taking steps in the right direction such as launching ‘wonky’ vegetable lines. However, more meaningful action is needed and measures should include:

  • Publication of audited food waste data to enable comparisons between retailers. An EU-funded project, REFRESH looked into how the retail sector measures and manages food waste and discovered a widespread lack of waste data from supermarkets across Europe. There is also a corresponding lack of knowledge on how this data could be used in an effective waste-monitoring and improvement program. The Feedback research we referred to in the last Step found that despite leadership from a few retailers, many lag behind on the most basic steps such as publishing their food waste data or converting surplus food into animal feed. And none are adequately addressing the ways that the supermarket business model causes food waste in the home due to confusing date labels and marketing strategies that encourage over-purchase. They are also failing to conduct analyses of their customers’ food waste data which could be used to create strategies to help reduce waste in homes.
  • Signing up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 of halving food waste by 2030.
  • Collaborating with producers to manage bumper harvests.
  • Improving forecasting and ordering mechanisms.
  • Working in line with the ‘food use hierarchy’ and prioritising prevention.
  • Redistributing food to charities and food banks.
  • Diverting food surplus to animal feed.
  • Relaxing cosmetic specifications for standard lines, not just ‘wonky’ vegetables, and extend cosmetically ‘imperfect’ ranges.
  • Working with food manufacturers on packaging improvements which help increase shelf life.
  • Working to help shoppers to reduce food waste.

Case study: Supermarkets’ initiatives to reduce food waste in the UK

In the UK most of the supermarkets have signed up to a national voluntary agreement run by WRAP (The Courtauld Commitment 2025), which covers food waste and sustainability issues. Under this agreement, supermarkets report in-store food waste data to WRAP. However, not all this data is audited by a third party and some is not publicly available. Organisations such as Feedback don’t consider this agreement ambitious enough. They think that a more ambitious global target is the UN’s SDG 12.3 – halving food waste by 2030. So far, Tesco and Aldi are the only UK supermarkets to sign up to the SDG. In the UK, Tesco was the first retailer to publish third party audited food waste data. Their decision to publish it led to an increase in the amount of food redistributed to people in need due to public and corporate awareness.

Many supermarkets, including Lidl and Asda, offer boxes of imperfect vegetables. Asda has worked to make date labels clearer. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Iceland send food surplus to be converted into animal feed. Co-op was the first supermarket to sell food past its ‘best before’ date at a discounted price. Asda developed a citizen food waste reduction initiative with the University of Leeds which lead to their customers saving on average £57 per year.

Tips on shopping wisely

  • Pre-shop planning. A meal plan and a shopping list are two of the best tools for reducing food waste.
  • Buy what you need. Shops have many clever ways of encouraging us to buy more than we’ve planned. Use a basket or small trolley to shop if possible, as the larger the trolley the more we’re likely to buy. Avoid shopping when you’re hungry or thirsty – have a glass of water and a snack before you go out.
  • Be aware of promotional offers such as ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ and avoid impulse buys. Avoid checkout buys – these shelves are among the most profitable areas in a shop and where we tend to buy food we really don’t need.
  • Buy local and in season. Food produced and enjoyed locally shortens the supply chain and limits the likelihood of spoilage during transit.
  • Buy imperfect food (less aesthetically pleasing and nearer to their expiry dates) which is often sold at a discounted price. Purchasing these items signals to retailers that consumers will accept ‘imperfect’ food.
  • Purchase upcycled food. Try purchasing food items made from upcycled waste from the food system (see Step 2.8).
  • Shop Online: online shopping is not available to everyone but for many it provides a convenient way of avoiding distractions and temptations. It also allows for planning and budgeting.
  • Consider reducing your dependence on the supermarket chains. Studies have shown that most of our food is purchased from the major supermarkets, with less bought from smaller stores and farmers’ markets. Food waste tends to be highest when people shop exclusively in large supermarkets, decreases when purchasing takes place in small shops and local markets, and is lowest when people also grow their own food. Consumers who buy local vegetables on a regular basis tend to waste significantly less (up to 90%). Home-grown food is less likely to be thrown away because people are more aware of the time and effort that was put into producing it [3].

Do you think it’s possible to have a ‘waste free’ supermarket? Share your ideas about what it would take to make it happen in the comments section below.

© EIT Food
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