The fuller our lives, the fuller our bins

An interview with Daniel Welch

Every day, every month, every year, we waste food.

A serious amount of food.

Current estimates by the government’s Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) suggest that, on average, we throw away around a third of all the food we buy.

And we’re not alone in our profligacy: across Europe, we waste more food that the whole of sub-Saharan Africa produces.

The media would have you believe that this waste and the huge environmental problems that it creates is our fault as lazy and selfish consumers.

It’s more evidence of “Broken Britain”, they tell us.

"across Europe, we waste more food that the whole of sub-Saharan Africa produces"

Yet the reality appears to be the opposite - we waste more not by doing less but by being active and spending time with others.

Our research shows that people waste food for a whole host of reasons, but often because their usual routines are disrupted by additional or unexpected activities.

An impromptu night out with friends, a school parents’ evening or simply working late are all factors that can impact our household schedules and lead to purchased food ending up in the bin.

Indeed, occasions that in many other ways make our lives richer and fuller are often the biggest causes of waste.

Take a Sunday roast with the family (a giant joint of beef with all the trimmings…) or a dinner party with friends (remember that impressive and extensive three course meal you served up with a little help from Jamie Oliver?).

It seems the more people we have round, the more food we’re likely to waste in a bid to avoid the dreaded social faux pas of a guest leaving hungry.

So what should we do? Follow fewer of Jamie’s recipes and live a hermit-like existence?

Doesn’t sound like much fun.

"we need to reconnect with the food system so we value food more"

But we’re not suggesting the answer to food waste is ready meals and eating alone. Most of the experts we’ve spoken to feel that we need to reconnect with the food system so we value food more. And food as a social focus and understanding how to cook are part of that.

Retailers are often criticised for encouraging food waste through promotions like Buy One Get One Free.

Our research suggests that’s somewhat misplaced. Unlike many other environmental issues, there is largely a consensus on food waste.

Campaign groups, third sector organisations, policy makers and retailers are telling us much the same story.

And for retailers this is a win-win situation: efficiency savings from less waste in their operations, and a chance to engage consumers on an issue where they can offer practical support.

We’re only halfway through our current research project, so we don’t have all the answers yet.

But it’s already clear that, it’s a big problem and it’s going to take both retailers and consumers to fix it.

Dr Daniel Welch is a post-doctoral Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute. One of the first cohort of PhD students at the SCI in 2008, he is now working with Dr David Evans on a project exploring the relationships between households, retailers and food waste.

Q & A

What is your specific field of research?

I'm a sociologist and my background is in sustainable consumption. Following on from my PhD that I finished a couple of years ago, I'm now working on a project since the beginning of the year looking at food waste from a qualititative perspective and specifically the interface between retailers and households. It’s a follow-up to some ethnographic work carried out by my colleague Dr David Evans with the aim of understanding more about how food waste has become framed as a national issue and what people think about it and who they think is responsible for it.

Why is the University of Manchester the right place for your research?

I'd been living in Manchester for some time working as a journalist and a copywriter broadly in the area of sustainable consumption when the SCI started advertising for its first tranche of PhD students and it just seemed like a fantastic opportunity. Manchester is a fantastic place to be doing this research. There is a lot of sustainability work going on here from the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities all the way down to some very vibrant grassroots community projects, including organisations like the Kindling Trust and we've also got the legacy of the Cooperative Group both in itself and through its funding of numerous sustainability projects.

The really interesting thing about Manchester is that it's big enough to have lots of projects going on but also small enough that networking around issues like sustainability works really well. You can be involved in an issue like food waste or cycling sustainable transport and when you run an event, you get the most relevant people from all the best organisations in one room talking to each other. That can lead to some real synergies that are perhaps harder to achieve in a bigger city like London.

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

There’s no doubt that food waste is a genuinely huge environmental and sustainability problem. Europe currently wastes as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. We're in an extraordinary position in the UK where food is too cheap for some but it's also too expensive for others - we're throwing away more than a third of the food that we buy and at the same time children of working parents don't have enough to eat.

How does your research help meet this challenge?

I’ve studied the literature on food waste produced by non-governmental organisations and by retailers and we’ve interviewed more than 30 key stakeholders across all the relevant constituencies, including some very senior people in the grocery retailer sector and policy makers in DEFRA as well as the Scottish and Welsh governments. We've also interviewed sustainability consultants and people from third sector and non-governmental organisations such as Feeding the 5000 and Forum for the Future. It’s often presented in the media that the laziness and profligacy of consumers is the root of all our food waste problems, but our research shows that we waste food for all sorts of different reasons and that those reasons are usually to do with how we live our lives today. We buy food to meet our respective schedules and if those schedules are disrupted in any way by someone working late, an impromptu night out with friends or an event like parents’ evening, some of that food is inevitably wasted. We’ve also found that the more significant occasion it is socially - whether it’s a Sunday roast with the family or dinner with friends - the more food we tend to waste. The media has tended to blame retailers for the way they promote and package food, but our research shows that most retailers are working hard to change their buying practices to reduce waste upstream in the food system and to clarify the date labelling of food so less food is wasted by consumers.

The next stage of our research will involve running a workshop here in Manchester with representatives from the World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme as well as sustainability consultants and people from industry and the third sector. The aim will be to talk practically about what the key issues are what best practice looks like and to broker some effective knowledge relationships in the process.

How important is collaboration?

Collaboration is massively important in sustainability. My SCI colleagues are historians, innovation researchers, political scientists as well as sociologists like me. You need that wide range of perspectives and expertise to tackle sustainability questions effectively.

My colleague Jo Swaffield and I will be presenting a paper in Portugal in September to the European Sociological Association Consumption Studies group - a European-wide network of sociologists that look at issues around consumption, including sustainable consumption. It’s a very active and collaborative network of people that has worked together for years. At the SCI, we also have a strategic partnership with Unilever and some of my colleagues been working on some research that is informing Unilever thinking about sustainable business practice in developing countries.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

In an immediate sense I'm most excited about the project we've got coming up next year with the SCI, which is a project around eating out that will revisit and update a very important study that my colleague Professor Alan Warde was involved with in the 1990s.

From a food waste point of view, I’m excited about the potential for real and lasting change. Unlike a lot of environmental problems, there’s a huge amount of consensus in this area. It’s not like trying to change the energy system, for example, where you’ve got certain embedded interests. Since the financial downturn, there’s been a big downturn in food waste. Half of that is due to people wasting less generally, but the other half is down to the success of campaigns on preventing food waste. If we got rid of the avoidable food waste in the UK it would be the equivalent of taking a quarter of cars of our roads. So it’s within our control to really make a big difference.

And what are you most concerned about?

For me, you can only go so far with sustainability when our basic economic model is dominated by the short-term interests of finance capital. It’s hard not to think that whatever good stuff we do, we’ll still have a big problem until we tackle this fundamental political problem of certain groups and industries seeking the fastest possible returns regardless of the social and environmental consequences.

By Bill Bows in interview with Daniel Welch