Niki Charalampopolou, founder of the UK charity Feedback, talks about its partnership with Tesco
Growing up in a typical Mediterranean household, all family events and conversations took place over sharing a meal. Over time, what started as a personal passion and love of eating merged with my work in environmental campaigning.
When I came across the reality of a food system whereby we waste more than 30% of what we produce, often for absurd reasons, fighting food waste on a global scale became a clear and urgent path forward.
Currently, food waste is considered as an acceptable externality of our food system, when it should really be treated as a systemic failure and injustice of immense proportions. In that failure, however, lies a huge opportunity to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of food production with relatively easy solutions while increasing the total availability of food in our quest to feed a growing population of 9 bn people by 2050.
My involvement in food waste campaigning alongside renowned author and advocate Tristram Stuart led in 2011 to the founding of Feedback, an environmental charity dedicated to ending food waste at every level of the food system. Since its inception, Feedback has been working to change society’s culture towards food to make food waste ethically unacceptable. We have focused on unearthing the hidden causes of food waste beyond the obvious refrigerator-to-bin paradigm.
While each and every sector of society hasa role to play, Feedback has been particularlyactive in shining a light on the ways in which food is being wasted across the supply chains of retailers and food manufacturers. These policies include unnecessary cosmetic specifications for produce; unfair trading practices that levy devastating economic consequences on farmers; the upstream offloading of risk and responsibility for food wasted in overseas and domestic supply chains; and the discarding of perfectly fit-for-consumption food when it could be donated to people who need it.
After a series of on-the-ground investigations in Kenya in 2013, we found that cosmetic specifications were often used by retailers and importers as a front for cancelling orders at the last minute.
Practices like “topping and tailing” (with the aim of creating a uniform size of a given vegetable) contributed to an estimated 30% of the crop being lost before it arrived in supermarkets; what’s more, in excess of 30% of food was beingrejected at farm-level while exporters reported that nearly 50% of produce was rejected before being exported.
We took these findings to the public, using public mobilisation to bring the message home to retailers in the UK and globally for the need for change. Tesco Plc was the first and most prominent of these corporations to engage with Feedback. As a result of our constructive pressure and expert insights,Tesco agreed to release a third-party audited report of its food waste – the first supermarket anywhere in the world to do so. It also committed to auditing part of its supply chain, reforming its contracts with banana suppliers and relaxing its cosmetic standards on a sample of its product lines.
Our campaigning also led Tesco to make a change to its green bean standards in 2014, trimming only one side of its green beans – a change that saved one supplier whom we interviewed one third of her harvest. In May 2016, Tesco announced that it would further relax these green bean standards, eliminating the need for its suppliers to “top and tail” produce, another seemingly small change that Tesco estimates will save more than 135 tonnes of food waste per year.
As food waste is quickly rising to the top of environmental issues that retail customers are concerned about, one would have hoped that Tesco’s move would have initiated a healthy competition between retailers to become the least wasteful. Sadly, Tesco’s move towards greater transparency of reporting on food waste has not been matched, or even exceeded by, the action of other retailers in the UK and abroad. Globally, the United Nations has established the goal of halving food waste by 2030 – a target matched by the United States.
At Feedback we believe that supermarkets and large food manufacturers are uniquely positioned to control food waste and contribute specific actions to make these targets a reality.
Consumers ahead or retailers
While in the UK consumers reduced their household food waste by 21% between 2007-2014, retailers have lagged far behind, in large part due to lack of measurement and transparency. Small and important actions such as selling “wonky” vegetables are important, but major businesses have the responsibility to move beyond PR-focused exercises to the smart, strategic business decisions that will deliver the scale of food waste reduction that is necessary to achieve these goals.
Feedback is urging major players within the global food industry to take a good, hard look at their policies and practices within their supply chain models. We have formulated a list of specific asks for supermarkets and major food retailers to take food waste off the menu.
These steps include: adopt a single, uniform date labelling system so that consumers do not unknowingly throw away good food; sell “ugly” fruit and vegetables so farmers and suppliers do not need to waste perfectly good food; improve forecasting models and collaboration across supply chains to reduce the amount of food wasted on farms and packhouse; measure and report precisely how much food is currently wasted in their own operations and supply chains; and making all unsold, surplus, fit-for-consumption food available to organisations that can feed people, rather than discard it.
Like any retail business in the modern age, supermarkets and manufacturers respond when their customers demand change. We leverage this dynamic through our campaigning and public awareness events, which inform and motivate the public to act against food waste and in turn influence decision-makers to create tangible change. (A petition we launched in 2015 with global online campaign group Avaaz calling for governments to investigate and legislate against unfair and wasteful supermarket practices has secured well over 1 million signatures to date). Food retailers around the world should respond to the public appetite for food waste reduction. They can and should take simple but effective steps to seize the opportunities in tackling food wasteat every level.