It is generally undisputed that greenhouse gases are emitted during food production (e.g., using machinery to harvest grains and vegetables, and methane emissions from raising livestock). Furthermore, carbon-emitting resources are put to use in order to process, package, transport and market these foods. What too often gets brushed over, though, is the impact on the environment from the foods that go unconsumed.
An estimated one third of food produced across the world for human consumption is wasted. Not only does this squander the resources put to use producing this food, but also food waste generates and emits even more greenhouse gases, in the form of methane, when placed in dumps . If global food waste were a country, it’s carbon footprint would be the third largest, after China and the United States .
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In the developing world, much of food waste is attributed to loss of food that takes place during the production phase. However, in the developed world, innovations have helped get the majority of produced food to the retailer level. It’s at this point that things go south. Grocers, out of fear of running out of inventory, often over-order and consequently dump perfectly good food when shelf space runs out. Mis-shapen fruits and vegetables are discarded for more beautiful versions. And “best by” dates are misinterpreted as actual dates of expiration. When added up, American food retailers typically see annual in-store losses of 43 billion pounds of food . Above and beyond moral, ethical or personal reasons that may inspire the leadership team of a retailer to combat the food waste problem, better management of food supply presents a meaningful opportunity for retailers to improve their bottom lines. In fact, in an analysis of 700 companies spanning manufacturing, retail, hospitality and food service, half of them showed a $14 return on every $1 invested in food waste reduction .
Tesco, a British multinational grocer, has been an industry leader in the fight against food waste. Since 2009, the organization has been making adjustments to its own operations as a means of zero-ing out the amount of food sent to landfills. This past September, it launched a Supplier Partnership initiative to encourage similar practices earlier along the food chain. These steps include:
- Making use of produce with visual imperfections via the launch of the ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ brand of fruits and vegetables, as well as using produce with visual imperfections for store-branded pre-packaged/prepared foods (e.g., mashed potatoes).
- Enabling suppliers to redistribute food that would otherwise be wasted to donation centers .
- Partnership agreements with suppliers committing them to halve their own food waste by 2030 .
- Managing surges in crop availability by selling in bulk and at a discount .
- Investments in forecasting and ordering systems to better manage supply .
- Working more closely with farmers to understand how food order specifications may or may not impact food loss on the farm itself .
A core KPI of Tesco’s initiative is in its ability to go viral. The United Nation’s has set a Sustainable Development Target of halving per capita food waste at both the retailer and consumer level by 2030 . Accomplishing such a target is contingent on the commitment of all major retailers and their suppliers to demonstrate an ability to reduce waste. Tesco’s transparency has deservedly been applauded by the UN and key opinion leaders in this space, but a core hurdle will be in convincing more businesses to follow suit. To do so, I believe more efforts need to be made to ensure the case to diminish food waste appeals not only to the ethos (ethics) and pathos (emotions) of management teams, but also to their logos (logic). The economic benefits of minimizing waste are increasingly being measured and should be made more clear, and concrete action plans should be publicized to reduce barriers to comply. It must be made easier for the worlds’ retailers to “do well by doing good.”
Undoubtedly, more hurdles lie in the way of compliance by retailers and their suppliers. In order to make the UN’s goal viable, a culture shift needs to take place on the consumer side. Until consumers take “best by” dates less literally and shift their expectations as to the color, shape and size of produce, it will be a challenge to convince retailers to adapt some of the practices that can help disable food waste. What else lies in the way of the UN’s Sustainability Development Target? How, as HBS graduates and future leaders, can we better educate consumers and create a culture that discourages waste at every level of the food chain?
 Elizabeth Royte, “One-Third of Food is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done,” National Geographic, October 13, 2014. [https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/] accessed November 2017.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food wastage footprint & Climate Change” (PDF File), downloaded from FAO website [http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/FWF_and_climate_change.pdf] accessed November 2017.
 Tesco, “Little Helps Plan” https://www.tescoplc.com/little-helps-plan/products-food-waste/suppliers/, accessed November 2017
 Katy Askew, “Tesco spearheads food waste push,” FoodNavigator.com, September 20, 2017 [https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2017/09/21/Tesco-spearheads-food-waste-push#] accessed November 2017.