The implications of such a huge amount of waste are going beyond unequal distribution, and the social and the health problems that are created. Food waste is also responsible for a whole new set of environmental problems, which adds more pressure to the already existing problems: Over 4 million tons of green house gas emissions are associated with food waste annually, almost 200 million cubic meters of fresh water are wasted together with the food we don’t consume, and 28 million tones of fertilizers are used every year to grow food that is going to waste.
It is hard to comprehend these colossal figures and the exact implications of such a waste on global economy, environment and society, but it is easy to agree that the situation as such cannot go on.
The source of waste throughout the global food production systems varies between the developed and less developed countries. In the developing world most of the waste occurs during the production stage (FAO, 2012), while in the western world production procedures and technologies have been perfected to minimize such waste. The root of the food waste problem in western societies is found further up the value chain, in our culture of abundance and behavior patterns. That is what causes tremendous waste in the preparation and consumption stages (FAO, 2012).
The attention around issues of food waste has been gaining growing focus in recent years with 2014 being announced the Year Against Food Waste by the European Union. Consumer organizations and social activists such as the British WRAP, the American End Food Waste, the Danish Stop Spild af Mad, and public figures such as Jamie Oliver, are putting pressure on producers and retailers to fight food waste, along with raising awareness and providing tools for food waste reduction in households.
This pressure starts to yield results as we witness major retail chains such as REMA 1000 fighting food waste with special labeling and reduced pricing, major international producers such as Unilever developing an app to help consumers save food, and the popular “Ugly Vegies” campaign from the French Intermarché, who are starting to engage with their consumers and becoming game changers in the field. This change is a welcomed development in the global effort to improve our food systems, however it seems that one industry still remains untouched when it comes to interaction with consumers for food waste reduction – the hospitality industry.
The hospitality industry is responsible for a significant part of food waste generated in Europe. In the Nordic region alone, 27% of all food waste is attributed to the hospitality and food service industry (Norden, 2012). In the UK the volume of food waste equals 1.3 billion meals per year (just enough to provide a meal for every hungry person on earth), and causes financial loses of 2.5 billion pounds (WRAP, 2011). Studies show that about 70% of this food waste is avoidable, meaning that perfectly edible food ends up in the bin. Although some leading catering, canteens, restaurants and other big kitchens are installing lean practices and process optimizations, mainly in order to cut costs, about half of the food waste in a restaurant/canteen is generated outside the kitchen – in the service and consumer stage. Similar to other sustainability issues, technological solutions alone will not do the job – a change in attitude, behavior and culture is essential for achieving any substantial change.
In the Nordic region alone, 27% of all food waste is attributed to the hospitality and food service industry
Yet, addressing food waste on the customer level is mostly unexplored territory, and it’s easy to understand why: our culture is a culture where food abundance and endless variety are signs of good hospitality and generous service, and it is this set of expectations that still follows customers when they choose a place for dinner or brunch. While out purchasing food in a supermarket or cooking at home, consumers can relate to the stipulation of saving food – saving money + doing good. But when it comes to ordering food at a restaurant or approaching a buffet consumers expect to get maximum value for their money. Even if this maximum is way beyond their ability to digest.
Research from the UK based organisation WRAP shows that when eating out, consumers also lose the sense of ownership or responsibility for the food that is going to waste, attributing issues such as overwhelming portion sizes to be out of their scope of influence. These social and cultural constrains put a great challenge for the hospitality businesses to address – how to reduce food waste without compromising the experience and satisfaction of their customers. Therefore, reducing food waste in hospitality is primarily a matter of cultural attitude and behavioural change, both of consumers and businesses.
It seems that the need for such change is coming at the right time. The emerging concern over food waste is starting to influence customer attitudes, even if not yet translating to behaviour. Over half of the global consumers are willing to pay more for goods and services coming from a responsibly managed company, while almost 50% of restaurant visitors are concerned with issues of food waste at their place of choice and would like to have greater transparency about the issue.
Danes are particularly concerned about food waste when they go out to eat. According to Unilever Food Solutions, 4 out of 10 Danes would prioritize eating at a restaurant that acts toward minimizing food waste throughout its activities, and almost 2/3 of Danes are willing to pay more for products and services from a sustainable and responsible company. In US the numbers of such customers reaches almost 50%.
These numbers show that restaurants have a great opportunity to seize in addressing the common interest consumers and kitchen managers share – saving costs, reducing waste, and establishing bigger trust regarding food waste. Reducing food waste supports a company’s sustainability efforts and increases financial returns, engagement with customers helps strengthen brand sustainability and reputation along with attracting new market segments, and it opens opportunities for new product developments.
Engaging consumers in food waste reduction and making them partners for the effort will give customers a sense of involvement, brand liability, and provide an adequate answer to their growing concerns over food waste and demands for greater transparency. Cutting business operating costs by reducing waste has also a great potential to contribute for more attractive pricing for the costumers. In times of dramatic raise in food prices, competitive pricing is priceless.
Hospitality managers should stop being afraid of asking their consumers to waste less
With all the above in mind, time has come for the hospitality businesses and consumers to join forces and rise to the challenge. Hospitality managers should stop being afraid of asking their consumers to waste less. Consumers on the other end, should realize their power in influencing businesses’ behavior and voice their concerns and demand better solutions for food waste as an integral part of the consumer experience.
So next time you eat out, choose a smaller portion, take only what you can eat from the buffet, and remember to ask for a doggy bag if you fail to finish your food. Communicate your expectations and concerns regarding the food waste in the hospitality industry to your favorite businesses and reward those who are actively addressing the challenge.