1. Abundance – a phenomenon that is very common in supermarkets. This is a tactic many supermarkets use to display a feeling of overflowing richness and choice for their customers. Nowadays, we have grown accustomed to this and take this as a norm, or a given. This tactic may have also backfired on supermarkets themselves, for if a customer doesn’t find the needed product on the shelf they turn to the competitor. However, many supermarkets can afford this kind of behavior because of their purchase power and take this as part of the business. Many still make a profit from selling a few items of the product and throwing the rest away. They believe that, leaving a customer feeling that their supermarket has an endless supply of goods is more valuable than predicting the order in advance, and possibly getting it wrong.
The solution for this is quite easy and simple, however it cannot be accomplished without the will of the supermarket. What mainstream supermarkets should do is follow ‘discount stores’ and economize on having “empty” shelves. In fact, many people have said that fruits and vegetables in discount stores are often times more fresh than in traditional supermarkets. Other solutions include:
- Using mirrors over products, often over fruits and vegetables, to give customers an optical illusion that there is a double amount of produce on the shelf.
- Supermarkets could also use partly covered boxes so that half the box displays the produce, while the other half serves as a marketing tool carrying the name of the producing company.
2. Sell by dates – The current labeling system is confusing for customers who are unable to differentiate between ‘Use by’ and ‘Sell by’ dates. Places like the EU are taking steps to address this issue by removing the sell by date. Currently, edible products that near their sell by date are thrown away because consumers complain about the freshness of the produce. This leads supermarkets to throw away perfectly edible food.
The EU is entertaining the idea of removing the ‘sell by dates’ from current produce. They are also trying to increase awareness about the differences of the dates among consumers. Another suggestion the EU proposed is to put items reaching their sell by date on sale, which would create a win-win situation for supermarkets and the buyers. This would attract clients to buy these items and help supermarkets increase their profits and reduce the waste of nutritious food.
As supermarkets have a stronger negotiation position than their suppliers, they can demand certain quality of transporting procedures. For instance, supermarkets could require a limit of transported fruits per truck, special type of resistible packaging or smaller but more frequent deliveries. The drawback of these solutions is that it would increase costs for both suppliers and supermarkets. In such a situation, the willingness of suppliers would depend on their relationship with the store, and the belief that both can benefit in the long-term. A very good example of this is Mercadona, which works with a small number of suppliers and has life long partnership with them. These suppliers are required to always deliver good quality products at the same price.
- Gathering detailed data about food waste. At the moment, some supermarkets release only general information about their waste, such as yearly increase in recycled materials and decrease in produce packaging. However, if detailed data was provided, stores could measure their inefficiencies and come up with solutions to solve them. (UPDATE: Tesco became the first supermarket to report food waste data and received positive feedback. They also encouraged other stores to follow in their footsteps.)
- Supermarkets are the first to know about the habits of their customers. They can use this data to create awareness campaigns. Such as creating an info-graphic that maps the food waste problem. (UPDATE: Intermarché, and their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign became a global sensation.)
- Supermarkets can encourage customers to buy food responsibly, by releasing leaflets, sending announcements or putting information in supermarket aisles. Some of the possible information could be: creating a shopping list, planning family meals in advance, and creating special discounts for people that participate in these campaigns.
5. Donation constraints – In many countries supermarkets don’t have incentives to donate food to different NGO’s. The USA is an example to follow, because companies that want to give away food can discount the given amount from their taxes, up to 10% of their aggregate income. In some countries, for example in Poland, companies need to pay a tax for their donated items. This means that it is much more profitable for them to throw it away.
The solution is simple but quite hard to implement. A strong lobby needs to be created to pressure the government into urging big corporations to become more sustainable. After all, the changes would benefit all involved stakeholders. In my opinion, creating more flexible standards by which organizations, corporations and individuals can donate food, would be the best solution, especially if the donors can use their donations for end of the year tax deductions. In the USA there is a law called the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act, which takes out the liability of donating products. So far, it is the only bill in the world that helps incentivize food donation.
6. Health and sanitation issues – Sometimes supermarkets reject products because of rigorous food standards and quality concerns. Driven by consumer demands, supermarkets are concerned about the freshness of their produce and display only the freshest items. The European Council Regulation No 178/2002, Article 14 lists out food safety requirements, which ensures that food on the market is safe to consume. It requires the vendor to remove items from the market that are: injurious to health, unfit for human consumption or if they don’t fit the normal conditions of use of food by the consumer at each stage of production. The European Parliament implemented a regulation (No 1221/2008) that lists various classes, standards and physical characteristics that fruits and vegetables should maintain. Often times, supermarkets also force their own standards on farmers, such as straight cucumbers. Not only does it standardize what consumers are used to seeing, but it also helps easily fit and transport the produce in a box. When all cucumbers are relatively straight, more can fit into the crates.
Over the years, supermarkets have been focusing on fresh and perfectly shaped produce. The customers have become accustomed to seeing such products, bringing many stores to the conclusion that the items that don’t fit the ‘norms’ must be thrown away. With less restrictive regulations, supermarkets can help transform the unrealistic views consumers have for their fresh produce. To do so, they can allow consumers to taste the various types of apples being sold at the store, and buy based on taste rather than appearance.
7. BOGOF – Buy One Get One Free is another cause of food waste. Subconsciously it makes customers think that by buying one and getting another one free they are getting a good deal. The reality is that most of the time they buy more than necessary and throw the second pack away. It is also unprofitable for supermarkets, who must sell more of the same product to make up for the lost profit of the one given away for free.
Some stores began to address this issue and introduced a new deal called BOGOL (Buy One Get One Later). This concept was introduced by Tesco supermarkets in the UK in 2009, and gives customers the opportunity to pick up their free product during their next shopping trip. (Gray, 2009) Not only does this help prevent food waste on the consumer level, it also gives customers the incentive to visit the store another time and buy more things. In Spain, offers such as 2×1 or 3×2 are demonstrating a declining trend, since customers are no longer buying things in bulk. Rather, they prefer to do small shopping that helps them control their spending. They also began looking for deals that directly cut the price of the produce.
8. Exposure to bacteria – In all supermarkets fruits and vegetables are exposed to bacteria. People spread germs when handling or testing the produce for freshness. This in turn leads to a faster rotting process, and reduces the quality of foods.
Supermarkets could encourage people to use special gloves. In many supermarkets such plastic gloves are available but not everybody uses them. Moreover supermarkets should keep their fresh products in better conditions. It is a known fact that fruits and vegetables kept in cool places last longer, but in most supermarkets they are kept in room temperatures. There is also a theory that UV rays would kill the bacteria that are on fresh products. Utilization of such lights could be a breakthrough solution for supermarkets, as far as fruits and vegetables are concerned.
9. Desire for imported products – People form developed countries have a strong desire for products that are grown or manufactured in faraway places. Rather than using local produce, manufacturers from far away are contracted instead. This larger network of suppliers results in higher amounts of food waste. In the study carried out by “Supermercados, No gracias” called Los mitos de los Supermercados, one can find figures about the origin of some products in supermarkets in Barcelona. In fact, 36% of consumed apples and 34% of consumed grapes come from Chile. It would be understandable if these products weren’t available locally, but they are. There are some other absurdities; for instance Spain imports 330 tones of chicken on a daily basis and at the same time exports 205 tones of the same meat. As it was explained before, transporting food negatively affects its quality, which means that a significant share of these produce will be thrown away before they get to the store shelves.
The only possible solution is to launch educational campaigns that help people understand the economic, health and environmental benefits of consuming locally. This helps develop the local communities and it gives consumers the chance to enjoy fresh produce from a local farmer.