Reducing the amount of food waste that goes to landfill is a sustainability challenge faced the world over. Ben Cooper takes a look at an initiative in the US which brings together retailers, manufacturers and restaurant operators.

It is a criticism of corporate sustainability strategies - and one that has been particularly directed at the US - that companies tend to focus more on the environmental piece than the social.

Most of the easy gains, the so-called 'low-hanging fruit', are in the environmental space. Maximising efficiencies in water and energy has direct cost implications and is a relatively easy sell to the 'c-suite'. Making the business case for social initiatives is more complicated and the benefits are less tangible.

Social aspects of sustainability can therefore be left out on a limb, while environmental criteria are integrated into the business model.

It was therefore encouraging to see a sustainability initiative being showcased at last week's FMI/GMA Sustainability Summit which speaks to both the environmental and human aspects of sustainability, and which draws the two together.

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), which was launched last year by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA), has two clearly defined objectives, Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer at General Mills and co-chair of the alliance, explains, "to drive down the amount of food waste that's going to landfill, and increase the amount of recoverable food that's going to hungry people".

The threefold strategy, Lynch continues, is to understand the nature of the problem through research, the first phase of which has now been completed, to identify "emerging solutions and best practices" and thirdly to identify possible policy options, which could be company, inter-company or public policy.

The scale of the problem suggests the challenge the FWRA has taken on is not for the faint-hearted. According to research commissioned by GMA and FMI, post-harvest food waste in the US amounts to around 121bn pounds per year, with around 80bn pounds of that going to landfill.

The three trade organisations are also working with Feeding America, the largest hunger relief charity in the US, and the alliance aims to help retailers and food producers work with smaller, local food banks and shelters.

One aspect of sustainability discussed extensively during the Sustainability Summit was collaboration, both between companies and between industry and civil society organisations, and arguably the FWRA epitomises that. 

For Lynch, the collaborative aspect is "one of the real values" of the alliance, as it is often at the "intersection" of different sectors of the food chain that waste occurs. 

FWRA co-chair Michael Hewett, director of environmental and sustainability programmes at Publix Super Markets, also stresses the value of collaboration: "The unique and fantastic part about this alliance is that everybody understands it is a pre-competitive issue," he tells just-food. "It's an issue we all face, and we're able to work on solutions together, collaborate and move the ball forward in ways that we could never do on our own."

From his own company's experience, Lynch cites a collaboration initiated by General Mills which has become known as the Great Corn Rescue of 2012. The initiative, which involved General Mills, Cargill, SuperValu, Seneca Foods and the non-profit organisation, Second Harvest Heartland, saw some 650,000 pounds of waste sweet corn saved and made into 465,000 meals to feed people across 10 states.

Another cooperation saw nine truckloads of unsold cereal with bespoke packaging relating to a promotion for a specific retail customer sent for donation rather than to landfill. This example exemplifies the inter-company policy aspect of the challenge, Lynch says. General Mills was able to work with the customer, he explains, giving assurances that the product would only be going into the "very well-controlled supply chain" of the food donation partner, Feeding America, where it could be put to a "much more beneficial use".

Lynch and Hewett shared the platform at a presentation during the Summit and urged the assembled gathering of retailers, manufacturers and other stakeholders, to redouble their efforts. Hewett concluded by saying: "For those of you who are already working with Feeding America, working with your local food banks and food pantries, to donate food to hungry people, we applaud you, but there's still much work to be done."

However, it should be borne in mind that however valuable it may be to donate unused food to the needy the FWRA is also aimed at reducing waste in the first place.

The FWRA has taken the food waste hierarchy set out by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a "formative roadmap", Lynch says.

The EPA hierarchy puts reduction of food waste as the top priority. After that, the priority uses for food waste should be feeding the hungry, followed by animal feed, industrial use and composting, with incineration or landfill as the last and least desirable options. 

So the first plank in the FWRA strategy, to reduce waste overall, is key. Clearly though, when there inevitably is some wastage, ensuring that this is consumed by people rather than diverted to a lower-value use is very important. It ensures that the natural and economic resources that have gone into making agricultural raw materials into finished or semi-finished food products are not wasted, while feeding people in particular need of sustenance and, if that food would otherwise go to landfill, avoiding an environmentally costly form of disposal. The interconnect between environmental and social sustainability in this instance could not be clearer.

One observation not lost on anybody addressing the food waste challenge is that while there is, as Lynch and Hewett make clear, plenty for industry to do in reducing waste or disposing of it more sustainably, the largest contribution of food waste to landfill is made not by food manufacturers or retailers or by restaurants, but by consumers.

According to the research commissioned by the GMA and FMI, domestic waste in the US accounts for around 44% of the total amount of food sent to landfill, compared with 2% from manufacturing, 11% from the grocery sector and 33% from the restaurant sector.

Another theme that was frequently discussed during last week's Sustainability Summit was the role companies can play in influencing consumers. Unilever's groundbreaking work in encouraging people to take shorter showers was frequently mentioned.

As companies conduct an increasing amount of footprinting and lifecycle assessment (LCA) work on their products, the environmental impacts of their products at the point of use and after are becoming increasingly apparent. 

The primary responsibility after purchase ultimately must lie with the consumer but in terms of how companies design and promote products there is also a significant amount they can do to reduce impacts after purchase. As food retailers and manufacturers realise, nowhere is this more true than with regard to food waste, and in that regard there will be further challenges to come.