Consumers, not supermarkets, need empowering to tackle the food waste crisis
Or so say expert psychologists. A new transnational research study has set out the key psychological drivers that lead to consumers wasting food.
Around one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is currently wasted.
In developed nations over half of this waste occurs at the hands of consumers.
In spite of public pressure on retailers to do more to tackle the problem, a team of researchers from the US and Europe believe targeted action to prevent consumer-driven food waste can help address this crisis.
A new study led by the researchers into food waste behaviours sheds light for the first time on the reasons why we waste food. It describes a ‘squander sequence’ that drives consumers towards wasting food at different points of the food cycle.
The researchers looked at how food is wasted prior to purchase, at the point of purchase itself, and after purchase, to identify a psychological framework to explain common food waste behaviours.
“Food waste is a really pressing environmental topic and policy makers and campaign groups are quite rightly trying to bring urgent action on the issue. But in order to develop the right response, it is imperative that we understand exactly why consumer food waste is happening. This is what our study set out to find out,” comments participating researcher Mia Birau, from Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.
Common food waste behaviours explained
At the pre-acquisition stage, one common driver for food waste is produce not looking good to the eye; this is already well understood when it comes to fresh produce, which sits and perishes on supermarket shelves.
However the research also describes other aesthetic considerations for the food waste conundrum. Attractive packaging, supermarket layout and promotional displays all contribute to the ‘beautification’ of food, which encourages impulse buying and over-purchasing, leaving food to perish at home too.
Consumers also expect variety in their diets, raising demand for non-seasonal, non-native food products. This is another contributing factor to food waste, as these foods typically sit longer in the supply chain and see higher spoilage rates, due to increased shipping distance and food handling requirements.
Another cause of food waste in the home is a trend among consumers typically to eat food products that have been bought most recently, over those that are nearing their use-by dates. The study also outlines a common discrepancy between what consumers actually feel like eating, and what they have to hand in the fridge. This leads to food products, purchased in good faith, typically being disposed of unconsumed. Consumers also typically fail to think of other ways of using up this food – whether making leftovers into a new dish, offering donations to food banks or even using it as household composting. Composting itself poses problems for food wastage – when composting we may feel less bothered about wasting food.
Solutions to tackle the problem
With the psychological reasons for consumer food waste better understood, it is easier to move towards logically sound solutions for addressing the problem. The research suggests a number of positive strategies for addressing food waste by encouraging consumer behaviour change, for example:
- Education campaigns to tackle to symptoms of food waste
- Providing support for home composting
- Raising awareness of the seasonality of produce
- Sales taxes on commonly wasted foods
- Standardising sell-by, use-by and best before dates
- A new policy of mandatory inclusion of freeze-by dates on foods
- Communication campaigns that encourage consumers to see food waste as culturally unacceptable
Researcher Mia Birau comments: “Current efforts to tackle food waste are often characterised by a blame culture, which can be very detrimental to achieving behaviour change. Psychologists know that efforts to blame, or name and shame, can quickly backfire, as individuals tend to belittle the significance of things that they find negative. What is really needed to tackle food waste is a response that speaks directly and positively to the behavioural reasons behind why consumers act in the way that they do. This will be a quicker route to achieving the change that we need to solve the problem of food waste and to mitigate the environmental and social damage that this crisis causes.”