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October 24, 2013

Consuming issues: Give Tesco some credit on waste

While there has been plenty of condemnation for Tesco on its announcement on waste, it deserves praise first for its candour, writes Ben Cooper.

In spite of the fact that it is palpably no longer the frightening hegemonic force it once was – take a look at its first-half results earlier this month – Tesco-bashing is still a popular pastime in the UK, almost as popular as wasting food apparently.

The two collided this week as the country’s biggest retailer announced it had wasted some 28,500 tonnes of food in its stores and distribution centres in the first six months of the year, and it would be making changes to its promotional policy to combat food waste.

Criticism focused on the shocking headline figure, as commentators railed against Tesco and other retailers for their wasteful strategies in selection policy – which sees so much edible produce lost before it leaves the farm – and for marketing techniques which exacerbate food waste.

Food waste is a hugely complex issue but can in simple terms be seen as falling into three primary categories: food loss – food that is grown but never enters the food system; food waste in the system itself; and consumer food waste.

While often accessories, supermarkets are by no means to blame for all of this. Supermarket chains’ exacting standards are blamed for a considerable amount of food loss though when looked at globally there are a host of reasons related to logistics, politics and supply and demand why food is lost.

True, up to 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of supermarket practices and, according to a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in January, globally retailers generate 1.6m tonnes of food waste annually, but this figure is dwarfed by the food loss created by other factors.

In the developing world, loss generally occurs at farm level, owing to inefficient harvesting, substandard transportation and storage and poor infrastructure. As the IME report stated, in South-East Asian countries losses of rice can range from 37% to 80% of total production depending on development stage, representing total wastage in the region of about 180m tonnes annually.

Returning to the UK and developed markets perhaps supermarkets are responsible for the rejection of perfectly edible produce but they would say they are responding to consumer expectations.

Supermarkets are also seen as the chief villains for food wasted once in the supply chain. In a sense, supermarkets would agree that this is their responsibility.

Eliminating waste is one of those areas of sustainability often described as the ‘low-hanging fruit’, an environmentally-friendly step that will immediately save you money and make your business more efficient. And for that reason it is somewhat puzzling that it has not become a higher priority sooner.

To imagine that Tesco would rather throw that 28,500 tonnes of food away than sell it is manifestly absurd.

While there has been plenty of condemnation for Tesco it deserves praise first for its candour, being the first major UK food retailer to publish its own total waste figures, and secondly for trying to do something about it. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) welcomed Tesco’s move.

The company’s actions focus on improving efficiency in its supply chain, rather than the contribution it makes to food loss further up the supply chain, and in a relatively small way on addressing consumer food waste.

It said it would remove ‘display until’ dates from produce, use smaller cases to display produce and rearrange 600 in-store bakeries to reduce the amount of bread on display. These steps would lead to “better stock control and less waste”, the retailer said.

Around 40% of Tesco’s total waste is categorised as ‘bakery’, with produce accounting for around 20%. Dairy products and convenience foods represent 8%, while confectionery and soft drinks account for 6%, and meat, fish and poultry for 5%.

The company also said it would end multi-buys on large bags of salad. Other retailers, such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, have moved sooner on this issue, though Tesco said this was a first step.

Supermarkets have generally been reluctant to acknowledge the link between promotions and food waste. After the IME report suggested such a link, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the supermarket sector’s representative body, denied such a link existed.

That there is a link between promotional activity and household food waste was always intuitively undeniable, and Tesco’s announcement appears to acknowledge this. The BRC still prefers not to, however.

BRC environment policy advisor Alice Ellison said Tesco’s move was “another good example” of the steps retailers are taking to address food waste. Addressing household food waste would potentially deliver the greatest improvement and a range of measures supermarkets had taken had helped reduce household food waste by 13% between 2006/7 and 2010, Ellison said. These included improved storage advice and offering customers advice on portion sizes and using leftovers. No mention of promotional activity, however.

The BRC stoutly ignoring the elephant in the room aside, there is some question about how much retailers should be expected to do to tackle consumer food waste. If a promotion is seen by the retailer as a commercially beneficial strategy, should it deny itself the opportunity to do something which it believes can optimise its business?

If a consumer buys the promoted food and consumes it, everybody’s happy. The retailer has been successful in following through its commercial raison d’etre, the consumer is happy and the food chain is working efficiently in that what has been manufactured has been consumed.

If the consumer ‘falls for’ the promo, buys something they don’t need and doesn’t use the food, then is the retailer or the consumer to blame? The retailer after all is doing nothing different from what it was doing in the previous scenario, so surely this is down to the consumer. Marketing might be the art of persuading people to buy things they don’t need, but arguably our entire consumerist culture and capitalist economies are built on this. Companies like Tesco market to us, we respond to the marketing messages, the companies compete successfully, grow and prosper.

But is there something particularly distasteful about our throwaway consumer culture extending to food in a world where, according to the World Food Programme, 842m people go hungry, and which faces the very real threat of global food insecurity?

Even in developed countries, food poverty is on the increase. Part of the reason why Tesco’s figures caused such shock stemmed from it coming so soon after news that use of food banks in the UK had trebled over the past year, according to figures from the Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks across the country.

Being profligate with food is arguably more heinous than being wasteful with other resources but the balanced response to Tesco’s announcement is surely that supermarkets cannot be held solely to blame.

It seems particularly unfair to berate Tesco at a time when it is actually doing something – even if it’s not a massive step – to address the waste in its own supply chain. One could say that Tesco and its peers need to do more, but so do we all.  

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