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Waste is Every Man’s Problem: The Role of Marketing in the Food Waste Issue

Audience: Food retailers, suppliers, and businesses

By Raphael Erfe | Position Paper

The target audience for this paper are food retailers, suppliers, and businesses because they are utilizing different marketing strategies and practices that contribute to food waste. The United States is leading in food waste globally, and many of its citizens are unaware of the extent of this problem, most importantly business owners and companies. It is critical for them to become aware of the food waste issue not only because of its negative impact on the economy but on the environment in which we live. It may be difficult for businesses and retailers to recognize the magnitude and severity of the problem and rectify their behavior because there is a large economic incentive to produce and sell more food. What food retailers, suppliers, and businesses must become more aware of is that the long-term negative externalities of food waste outweigh any short term benefits that ignoring the issue provides.

Only a couple of hours have elapsed since I first set foot in America and I already made a huge mistake - I was greedy and ordered way too much food at a Cheesecake Factory. Back in the Philippines, my home country, one order of food is usually enough to satisfy an average person - two orders if that person is really hungry - but that was not the case in America. When the waiter came out with the food, my eyes popped out in disbelief, and I had to ask him if he came to the correct table because I was sure that I only ordered enough for one person, not three. The single plate of pasta could have fed an entire family, and the burger was so enormous that I felt like I was about to dislocate my jaw trying to take a bite out of it. Needless to say, I came home with a lot of leftovers that day, and I learned an important lesson not to let my eyes and stomach do the thinking.  

As I spent more time in America, I realized that it was not only Cheesecake Factory that serves enormous portions, but almost every food establishment in the nation as well. In fact, food items are generally larger in the United States than in Asian countries. When my parents and I went to the grocery, we were amazed and shocked to see endless displays of apples, bananas, strawberries, vegetables, chicken, and seafood that were twice the size and looked so perfect. However, after taking the first bite, we immediately realized that looks can be deceiving and that it was a case of quantity over quality. That is how the food industry in America works; it focuses on the aspect of sheer quantity and size as one of the main selling points of food products. This is not to say that quality the food in America is poor, but businesses use the size advantage to market their products and gain an upper hand over their competitors because they know our technology enables us to find the best deals and the deepest markets. From this, the United States’s  culture of buying in bulk and for cheap emerged. However, consequences have emerged from consumers being “unable match our food intake with the increased supply of cheap, readily available food” (Hall et al.). In short, the new norm is that more is always better, and this is the root cause of food waste.

In definition, food waste is “food which is fit for consumption being discarded, usually at retail and consumer levels” (Vogliano and Brown). The United States wastes a whopping “$160 billion worth of food every year” which is equivalent to 33% of total food produced throughout the nation (White). The sad truth is that most people do not realize how much food they are actually wasting. A survey conducted in 2016 by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation found that 1 in 3 Americans claimed that “they don’t create any food waste”, which is an unlikely scenario considering the amount of food waste created annually (Food Insight). Apparently, a significant percentage of Americans are unaware of their actions that lead to food waste. However, this is not really a surprise considering that in our day and age, it has almost become socially acceptable to throw food away especially in first world countries because of its abundance and cheapness.

Another thing we do not realize are the many negative effects of food waste. Not only is it a huge drain on the economy and our resources, but the “excess consumption of freshwater and fossil fuels” from growing our food, and the high levels of methane and CO2 emissions from the decomposing food waste are taking a toll on the environment (Hall et al). Resources such as freshwater, manpower, and land are being used up rapidly by agriculture and livestock to provide us with food. Considering the exponential rate of growth of the human population and the accompanying increase in the demand for food, food suppliers are forced to ramp up production and it is only a matter of time before we run out of these natural resources. Reducing food waste would help us become more efficient with our resources and preserve them for future generations. Furthermore, greenhouse gas emissions, which are building up more and more due to agricultural practices and food waste, are one of the leading causes of global warming and climate change. Thus, reducing food waste could assist in slowing the rate of global warming.

Food waste is a global issue that demands the attention of everyone on this planet. Although we consumers should take responsibility for our actions and behavior, it is equally important for food retailers and businesses to do the same. Food businesses must address the many causes of food waste and implement solutions to mitigate the issue. Despite the seemingly overwhelming and insurmountable problem at our hands, solving it is quite feasible. The solution lies in the cooperation of everyone involved and to start a change one small step at a time. That small step will start with the supply level. To reduce food waste in the supply level, food retailers and businesses should revise their marketing strategies by decreasing portion sizes and revising sales techniques to reduce overbuying and on-shelf expiration, in conjunction with providing product labels to include adequate information on best before dates and food storage methods. These solutions will ensure that the root of the problem is addressed, and will also set into motion the changes that must be made in the consumer level.
In many cases, consumers buy large packages of food and end up throwing them away because once the package is opened, it will lose freshness more quickly as it is exposed to the air and other elements such as moisture, heat, and bacteria. This is one of the main causes of food waste in the household. However, it can be mitigated by reducing package sizes and increasing options for sizes, such as those that are single-use and have smaller compartments, which can be more easily adaptable to different applications (Griffin et al.). Smaller packages reduces the chances of product spoilage or expiration before it is depleted, especially in smaller households (Mena and Whitehead). Likewise, better packaging methods such as resealable bags and barrier packaging can help extend the shelf life of opened products and make it more reusable (Lingle). Furthermore, smaller packages of food can affect consumption habits. Several scientific studies show that “sub-packaging or reduced food unit size can reduce food intake”, which also decreases the chances of food waste (Livingstone and Pourshahidi).

Plate waste can also be minimized in restaurants by reducing portion sizes. Having large portions forces the customer to either finish all of it or throw the rest, and in some cases, the customer may opt to take the leftovers. However, taking out leftovers poses an increased risk of getting a foodborne illness as leftovers are contaminated and the ingredients continue to lose freshness quickly, which is also a reason why others simply toss it in the trash. On the other hand, smaller portions enable consumers to manage how much they eat more easily (Stuart 74). People can always order more food, whereas there are less practical solutions to having too much food. Therefore, consumers are more likely to finish their food and decrease waste.

An added benefit to reducing portion sizes is that it can improve overall health and reduce the chances of obesity. Nowadays, “large portion sizes is now routine and driven by value-size pricing, and ... effectively [distorts] consumption norms and perceptions of what is an appropriate amount to eat” (Livingstone and Pourshahidi). Therefore, reduced portion sizes not only helps reduce food waste but may also help in reducing the risk of obesity throughout the country. Although the reduction of consumer food intake might result in loss of short-term profits for businesses and retailers, those businesses and retailers should remember that healthier customers and patrons will result in longer life-spans and therefore greater potential to sell those same products and entrees to consumers.  The reduction of portion sizes will ultimately help people make better decisions about their health, and its contribution in mitigating food waste will result in a cleaner environment.

Utilizing retail sales techniques to influence consumer behavior can help reduce overbuying as well as lessen the amount of food that expire on-shelf in supermarkets and stores. Focusing on “quality over quantity” in supermarkets as a sales strategy is an effective way to address the issue of overbuying. Consumer behavior is heavily influenced by promotions and aesthetic appeals, and in fact, everything in a supermarket is displayed and presented in such a way that influences the customer to spend as much time as possible in the store, buy more items, and maximize their profit. Consumers tend to think in terms of the “best value for money”, and this overrides rational thinking, causing them to buy more products in excess (Griffin et al.). Supermarkets such as Costco offer wholesale items, which seem to be cheaper than buying several individual packages but in reality, “marketers also reduce the relative price of food...which is a powerful driver of supersizing” (Chandon and Wansink). Likewise, supermarkets usually offer so-called “multi-buy promotions” (e.g. “buy 2 for $1” or “buy one get one free”), to create the illusion that buying more will save money, and although this may seem like a logical choice, the savings are offset when the consumer realizes that it is more than what they need and the excess food is thrown away as it loses freshness or passes the expiration date (Halloran et al.). Therefore, cutting down on bulk deals will help prevent excessive buying and alleviate the issue of food waste in the household. Instead, supermarkets and retailers should revise deals by having related sales for different items instead of only applying it on the same kind of item. This will enable consumers to utilize the deals on other food items that they need instead of buying more of the same item in excess, as well as avoid profit loss from simply removing deals.

The aesthetic appeals and display strategies in stores can be utilized to reduce the overabundance of products that expire on shelf. Consumers think with their eyes when shopping, which is why creating the appearance of abundance is a widely used marketing strategy. Studies have shown that “simply increasing the number of facings on a supermarket shelf or placing familiar foods on top of the shelf (versus the bottom) increased the chances that these brands would be noticed, considered, and chosen” (Chandon and Wansink). Similarly, almost all retailers use a common marketing strategy that proves that abundant piles of produce sells more because it is more aesthetically pleasing to the customer, but this leads to more products expiring on shelf (Gunders). This is why supermarkets have to keep ordering a surplus of items to keep the shelves stocked, regardless of whether it is constantly in demand or not. As a result, many items on shelf and “overstock” (items that do not go on shelf) expire and have to be discarded if they are not sold (Stuart 75). Considering this phenomenon, reducing the sizes of displays and consolidating each item to a single spot on the store would make it so that less items would be on-shelf and would enable supermarkets to manage their overstock more efficiently since items go into more frequent rotation. To still give off the appearance of abundance, the displays may be redesigned so that the maximum height of the topmost shelf is much lower which can help prevent the products on the topmost shelf from being neglected and left to expire, and conversely for the bottom shelves. Therefore, manipulating how products are presented can have a significant impact both in reducing food waste and in creating greater profits for retailers.

Nowadays, consumers have higher “aesthetic standards” when it comes to fresh produce. Consumers expect fruits and vegetables to be free of blemishes and fit the idealized shapes, sizes, and colors that we have deemed appropriate. As a result, the food supply chain operates based on the notion that “[food] is either perfect, or it gets rejected” (White). Usually, the case is that food waste becomes more profitable for food producers and retailers. Farmers and food producers would end up spending more money to harvest crops that are perfectly edible but do not meet the aesthetic standards than leaving it in the field to rot or sending it to the landfills (Wee). If blemished foods or “ugly foods” are utilized and is made more appealing to consumers, it can cut a significant chunk of food waste from the supply chain while still creating potential for profit in businesses. Effectively marketing blemished producer or “ugly foods” begins in the supermarket. By making ugly foods more aesthetically appealing through advertising and/or presentation methods such as having colorful displays and interesting packaging, it can help encourage consumers to see how blemished produce are still edible and can be quite palatable. In addition, blemished produce can be sold for cheaper, and can have their own discounted section at the supermarket. Meanwhile, restaurants can also incorporate ugly foods as ingredients for their dishes (Kummer). Although the outside appearance may be different, blemished produce would have the same quality in restaurant dishes. It can also be made more appealing by making these dishes cheaper and also advertising the fact that it is also helping in reducing food waste. All of these solutions can help make blemished food a useful part of the food chain, while cutting out the unnecessary waste.    

Educating consumers about best-before and sell-by dates, as well as proper storage methods is a very important in achieving the goal to reduce food waste in the household. Most people have the wrong idea about best before dates (also known as sell-by dates or expiration dates) and throw food because they are unsure if it is still safe for consumption. Usually, when faced with a best before or sell-by date, consumers often “[misinterpreted] ‘best before’ label as ‘inedible after’ (Halloran et al.). However, in reality “the [FDA] determines that expiration dates are simply an indication of optimum quality as deemed by the manufacturer. ‘Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly” (qtd. in Arumugam). Therefore, labeling packages to include a statement or explanation on how the best before date is only an indicator of prime freshness and not the safety of the food item can help consumers make better decisions on whether they should throw out food or not. Likewise, by educating consumers on how food past their best before dates are still safe, expired foods in the supermarket may still be sold, albeit at a lower price. This can enable retailers and supermarkets to keep items longer and still make a profit out of expired foods. Similarly, expired foods may have other applications if redistributed, such as for soup kitchens and feeding the homeless.

Like best before dates, there is also ambiguity in terms of proper food storage. Consumers usually toss fresh produce because improper storage alters the color and appearance, which suggests that it is no longer safe for consumption. In fact, fresh produce can last a long time if stored correctly. Including proper labels on food packages that instruct them on the proper storage method can help educate consumers and maximize how they use of their food. In addition, retailers can improve packaging quality to extend the shelf -life and reusability of items (Halloran). Food waste in the household is largely a result of lack of information, and making this information more accessible to consumers can raise awareness, help consumers make more responsible decisions, and alleviate the issue.

There are many solutions to reduce food waste through the household and the supply chain. It may seem like this paper mostly argues that food retailers and producers must be the ones taking action to reduce food waste. However, food waste is also highly dependent on the consumer because a large portion of food waste is caused by irresponsible consumer behavior (Calvo-Porral et al.). These solutions may help mitigate the issue, but to completely turn it around, consumers must be made aware of and educated about the issue and its effects. Furthermore, one may argue that businesses may suffer and profit less due to some of these solutions that require a less profit-oriented marketing strategy and more effort and resources on their part. Although this may be true, it is ultimately for a greater cause. In addition, reducing food waste saves money and would be better for our economy, and the benefits of improving the economy as a whole can benefit all businesses. Food waste is a major contributor to climate change as greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and food production exacerbate the deterioration of the atmosphere and the environment throughout the planet (Thomson Reuters Foundation). The entire human population is dependent on the environment to survive, and endangering it will eventually jeopardize our species. Mitigating food waste through these solutions might cut down a small percent of profits for companies, retailers, and businesses, but it will help save the world in the long run, which is more than worth it. In fact, reducing food waste may even be more profitable as less resources are needed to discard expired foods, as well as being able to utilized expired and “ugly foods” in more productive ways (Gunders). As far as everyone is concerned, reducing food waste is in everyone’s best interests and is purely beneficial.

Solving the problem of food waste is not only the task of food producers and retailers, or only the consumers; it requires full participation from each constituency and a willingness to work together. Without such cooperation, a vicious cycle could emerge between the consumer and the food producers. Consumers could grasp to nitpicky aesthetic standards because the abundance of food, its cheapness, and ease of access enabled them to be choosy with what they want.. Furthermore, food retailers could use marketing strategies to further increase profits by influencing consumers to buy more items. This cycle would go on infinitely, exacerbating the food waste problem and impacting the environment in the process.. The solutions I have proposed aim to end this cycle from its roots by addressing it in the retail level. Retailers and businesses should begin to take responsibility and guide consumers towards making sensible choices. Change in such a large scale likely cannot be achieved in a short period of time, but consumers can take small steps in our own lives, such as learning about how to be more efficient and maximise the food we have, and avoiding acting on impulse with our eyes and stomachs and instead thinking rationally, to help retailers make decisions that might otherwise seem counter to profits. Consumers must receive help from retailers to ask the question, “Do I really need it?” Helping consumers will ultimately help retailers in the long run.

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