Few would’ve predicted it. Tristram Stuart, a dyed-in-the-wool eco campaigner known for his works on revolution and radical vegetarianism, on the same UN mission to halve global food waste as Tesco CEO Dave Lewis. 

If Tesco’s appearance on the same UN agenda seems incongruous, the significance is not lost on Stuart. He has been an outspoken critic of UK supermarkets over food waste for a number of years. And he still is. But after “a tooth and nail fight” Stuart believes the UK is on the “cusp of a breakthrough” that could see it become a world leader on waste, thanks to a “wonderfully perfect storm of events that has pushed the UK’s supermarkets into a corner” and forced them to be more transparent.

It’s Stuart who’s been doing a lot of the pushing. Years before Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall filmed his War on Waste TV series Stuart was exposing the chronic and shameful waste in the UK’s food supply chain via his food waste organisation Feedback.

And Tesco’s headline-grabbing decision in 2014 to reveal the amount of food it wasted across its stores and distribution centres (weighing in at 56,580 tonnes) was arguably a direct result of the pressure he has created as the food waste lobby’s outspoken figurehead. Stuart also believes Tesco’s decision directly led to CEO Dave Lewis joining him as one of 30 founder members of the UN Champions 12.3 group in January. The coalition of politicians, businesses and governments has vowed to hit a UN Sustainable Development Target to halve global food waste by 2030. “It’s a dead cert Dave Lewis was picked to chair this group because of his decision for Tesco to be transparent,” says Stuart.

“The way other countries have jumped into action is in such contrast to the tooth & nail fight we’ve had in the UK”

Tristram Stuart

Stuart is pleased by Tesco’s change of heart but also impressed at the impact it has had on other retailers. After a speech Lewis gave to the Consumer Goods Forum in June - where he lambasted his rivals for refusing to follow in Tesco’s footsteps over waste - “I met the CEO of Whole Foods at a festival in Aspen and the first thing he said was did I see Lewis’ speech,” Stuart recalls. “CEOs listen to other CEOs.”

But Stuart is not satisfied. Since graduating from Cambridge he’s made it his mission to embarrass companies into action on food waste (his profile is now global: after launching a successful Feeding the 5,000 event in London’s Trafalgar Square they have rolled out to cities as far flung as New York, Amsterdam and Sydney). And he is clear that work remains to be done.

“What we really need is for supermarkets not just to be saying ‘we’re doing wonky fruit’ but to be saying ‘this is where we’re doing it’ and ‘it has reduced waste by x to x’. That is the difference between a gimmick and a real shift.”


He has praise for Aldi (and more for Tesco) on this front. In February, Aldi declared that its Everyday Essentials Line, introduced in 2014, saved 34,000 tonnes of potatoes from going straight back into the ground as waste. Tesco also revealed that rooting out hotspots in its banana supply chain reduced wastage from 10% in 2000 to 4% in 2015.

Stuart wants “much more transparency along these lines and also data that tells us the full picture about the impact of reducing food waste across the supply chain.”

And he is still deeply suspicious about the true commitment in the UK to the issue. “We’ve launched food waste campaigns in 45 cities in 26 different countries in the world since Feedback was formed. Of all those, the US is the most wasteful in the world. But in the past two years it has gone from nowhere to full steam ahead. We’ve seen similar in Norway, Sweden and France. Yet the way those societies have jumped into action is in such contrast to the tooth and nail fight we’ve had in the UK. And I single out the BRC in particular here for acting like complete dinosaurs.”

After Feedback convinced Tesco to release data in 2014, the BRC followed with combined figures for all the mults. “That is fundamentally wrong,” he says. “The BRC comes out and defends this by saying that because everyone records things differently it would not be fair to have individual figures. That is completely bogus. Either they have accurate data or they haven’t and if they have, why are they hiding it?”

Pre-emptive strike

Stuart also says there are still “big gaps” in supermarket action. “The sort of thing I would single out is Morrisons, which before it was given a battering in Hugh’s show announced its own plans on food waste. It got in a pre-emptive strike and said ‘we’re going to be the first retailer to have no food waste whatsoever’. Yet as far as I know it has no realistic plan whatsoever to do this, it’s just a gimmick. Food waste is such a buzz issue and it’s often grossly simplified.”

With that in mind doesn’t it annoy him to see Hugh and Jamie Oliver jump on the bandwagon? Although he previously admitted to The Grocer an “element of inner frustration” that the late arrivals had attracted all the attention, now he backtracks.

“I wish you hadn’t reported that, because I am a massive fan of Hugh,” he says.

And he may not have a TV show but he knows the instrumental role he and his organisation have played, growing from what was a one-man band to a team of 21 staff and “thousands” of volunteers.

“That’s our big benefit now,” he says. “I can confidently say we are everywhere. And everywhere we are, we can really kick off.”


Age: 39

Education: Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Career: Founded Feedback in 2013 and now works as a campaigner and author. Work includes The Bloodless Revolution: Radical Vegetarians

Hobbies: At this time of year foraging for mushrooms; but last week in the Outer Hebrides it was free diving for scallops and fighting razor clams out of the sand with my last gasp of breath

Favourite movie: Avatar? Or David Attenborough’s programme on ants and termites - they were farming mushrooms on waste millions of years before humans discovered agriculture

Favourite meal: We cull fallow deer and spit roast one at the Winter Solstice

Most inspirational figure in battle against waste: Jared Diamond’s books set my work in context and provide the glimmer of hope we need