Among the green issues which have come to the fore in recent years, none is more pressing than waste reduction, and in the UK the food industry is among the worst offenders. As public and political pressure grows, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is playing a vital role in helping UK food producers and retailers to reduce waste. Dean Best met Charlotte Henderson, WRAP’s retail innovation manager, to find out more.

Food manufacturers and retailers today face a business and consumer landscape substantially different from even a year ago. And it is a landscape dominated by shades of green.

With green issues now centre-stage, consumers are more aware of how their purchasing decisions affect the environment. And business, under pressure from governments to reconcile profit maximisation with environmental concern, has been forced to respond in turn.

There are numerous green issues, such as organic production, sustainability and food miles, competing for the hearts and minds of consumers, particularly in developed markets. But climate change is often the overriding issue on which government, business and consumers are focusing their attention.

In the EU, for instance, reducing the mountain of household waste and encouraging recycling is seen as an effective means of addressing climate change. Use fewer resources, recycle more and, so the theory goes, cool the planet.

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However, it has needed the EU to lay down requirements to ensure all its member states reduce waste. The EU Landfill Directive, for instance, is designed to reduce the amount of rubbish sent to landfills.

In the UK, a government-backed programme dubbed WRAP (or the Waste & Resources Action Programme), has been given the challenge of getting the country’s businesses to meet EU waste-reduction obligations.

Charlotte Henderson

Central to WRAP’s task is getting the food industry to clean up its act on waste. In the UK, households dispose of 30m tonnes of rubbish a year, and of that total some 6.7m tonnes is estimated to be food waste. WRAP has moved quickly to get the UK’s largest grocery retailers and an increasing number of food producers to commit to cutting waste.

A key player in WRAP’s quest is the programme’s retail innovation manager
Charlotte Henderson. Henderson visited markets like Australia, Canada and China to study how manufacturers and retailers package and sell food. And now, back in the UK, she has worked to get retail giants like Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer to sign up to the so-called Courtauld Commitment to cut the amount of waste reaching UK homes by 5% in three years.

“Through government research, we saw there was a strong link between the amount of waste that ended up in household bins and the products being sold by retailers. Fifty per cent of household waste originated from purchases at the top five retailers,” Henderson says.

The Stern Report on climate change, commissioned by the UK government last year, focused business on its impact on the environment. The report, Henderson believes, was also a catalyst for increasing environmental concern among consumers.

“Since the Stern Report, we’ve seen people wanting to know what they can do as individuals to take action,” Henderson says. “That’s also coming through more in retail strategies as well in the UK, where we’ve got the likes of Marks & Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ and Tesco’s ‘Community Plan’.”

There’s little doubt that a voluntary commitment on waste reduction is more palatable to food manufacturers and retailers than the extra costs legislation would impose. Furthermore, with consumers demanding a greener approach from the food industry, joining WRAP’s fight to reduce waste is a sensible PR move. Environmental issues have become a key battleground for retailers in their fight to retain customer loyalty and gain market share from their rivals.

Henderson, however, senses a genuine commitment from the UK’s grocers. She points to packaging reduction targets from the likes of Tesco, M&S, Asda and Morrisons as evidence that grocers are serious about changing the way they operate, and not just paying lip-service to the twin demands of political pressure and consumer loyalty.

“These targets are challenging targets for them to meet; they’re not easy. In some instances, they are having to rethink exactly how a product can be packaged or can be sold. These are significant commitments from the retailers and we welcome them. Their targets are going to go beyond meeting and supporting the Courtauld Commitment’s objectives.”

In turn, the commitment from UK retailers to cutting waste has led to manufacturers needing to act; after all, central to reducing waste is cutting down or changing packaging. Twelve of the UK’s largest food producers, including Unilever, Premier Foods and Heinz, have also signed up to the Courtauld Commitment, and Henderson believes manufacturers and retailers need to work together.

“We’ve got packaging targets, which is great, but it’s also about looking at the packaging and the product together,” she asserts. “You can decrease product damage and extend shelf-life by looking at what packaging (manufacturers) are using; extend the shelf life of food and less food is wasted in the home. That will be a growing area in the future.”

WRAP is working with food producers to change the way they package their products to reduce waste and, perhaps more importantly for companies, reduce costs. Henderson points to the programme’s work with Heinz as an example. The two have worked to reduce the amount of material used in the ends and bodies of Heinz cans. The project has resulted in lighter cans, reducing the company’s carbon emissions with corresponding savings in production costs.

“We’re seeing many more partnerships being formed and looking at how the sector can work together to bring about change. WRAP is there to help facilitate the change and to take it forward,” Henderson says.

And going forward, is the Courtauld Commitment and its 25 signatories on-track to meet their targets? “The early indications are that we’re on-track and we’ll be reporting back next year,” Henderson says, adding that WRAP will then look to lay down the next set of goals for beyond 2010.

However, getting change at industry level is only half the battle. In the UK, recycling rates are still low compared to those in Europe and there is often a lack of information about what can be recycled and where. There is perhaps a need for more consumer education about which products to buy and how to recycle them.

Henderson agrees – up to a point. She says that, in some instances, changes to packaging would not largely affect the product on-shelf, at least not to the eye of a busy shopper. However, she cites the emergence of refills as an example where consumers will need more information.

Henderson believes retailers themselves could be a key factor in minimising waste. For example, the Whole Foods Market outlet that opened in London last month introduced self-dispensing systems for a range of products. “Those kind of self-dispensing systems are very common in the US, Australia and South Africa,” Henderson says. “It’s important to look at the store environment differently, in particular looking at store merchandising and how you can make that work harder.”

And in the months and years ahead, it seems that all sections of the UK food industry –retailers, manufacturers and WRAP alike – will be no strangers to hard work in the fight to tackle climate change.