Leftover vegetables food waste

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As consumers make the effort to make more ethical food choices, convincing them we are all in it together is key

Three lockdowns have made issues around sustainability tangible to many more people. Not least because the longer we spend in our kitchens, the more aware we are of the amount of food we waste.

This has had an impact on attitudes. Our study of a representative sample of 1,000 British consumers revealed 42% believe we as individuals should each take primary responsibility for reducing wastage. However, a fifth (21%) put this squarely at the door of the supermarkets and grocers.

As Jonathan Straight rightly highlights in his recent piece, most of the grocery chains in this country have taken note of these concerns and have focused on redistributing surplus food. But while such schemes are to be applauded, they don’t address the underlying issues.

Addressing sustainability in each of its forms – reducing food waste, net zero carbon, provenance and so on – is contingent on the grocers finding ways to work better with their partners across the entire food supply chain.

Until there is full transparency on the provenance of our food from field to fork – and where wastage does or doesn’t occur along the way – then grocery brands will be unable to demonstrate their credibility on those factors that matter to consumers.

That’s easier said than done, of course. As we know, food supply chains are highly complex, interlinked and interdependent systems. Observers outside this ecosystem might assume each part of the chain works closely together, but the complexity of the food supply chain makes that incredibly challenging.

An integrated approach would mean sharing data seamlessly across a digitised and non-linear supply network. Whilst there are some competitive concerns about data sharing, the real challenges lie in making sense of the data and being able to share it.

Addressing this is something we all have to work on together if the sector is going to be able to keep consumers onside. And since the grocers occupy a powerful position in this, they are uniquely placed to take a lead and drive the change across all stakeholders.

Co-op is a good example of a chain taking a proactive stance. It has committed to making all of its own-label food and drink products carbon net zero by 2025, and that means working with suppliers to help each deliver more sustainable growing techniques.

In the case of growers, that will mean helping them adopt precision agriculture, a data-informed approach to farming that ensures inputs – water, pesticides, fertiliser etc. – are applied only in those areas and in the amounts required to maximise yield without waste. However, this relies on the permissioned transfer of field-level data between farmers, agronomists, ag retailers and input manufacturers driving improved productivity, profitability and sustainability.

A similar level of data sharing is required throughout the supply chain, from processing to logistics, to reassure consumers that sustainable thinking is intrinsic to the market.

Convincing customers we really are all in it together is key. As consumers themselves are making the effort to make more ethical food choices, it only takes one scandal – at any point in the supply chain – for people to start pointing fingers at the failings of all, with the buck invariably stopping with the grocers.

Food waste is just the tip of the iceberg in proving grocery brands are what they claim to be. As sustainability and green thinking rise up the public agenda, it’s business-critical that grocers should place this front and centre. After all, transparency translates to proof and this, in turn, to trust.