The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? Households. Individuals. Consumers. 42% of food waste in the EU can be attributed to consumers. That’s a lot of bad choices. Choices to buy too much stuff. To stick a pizza in the oven rather than do something with those left overs. Choices not to learn to cook properly. To value convenience and de-value food.

At least that’s one story. The trouble is it’s not a very good one. It doesn’t really reflect why so much food goes to waste, and it doesn’t help us much in understanding—and tackling—the problem. This isn’t to say that individual responsibility isn’t important. But it’s not enough.

It’s not a helpful way of understanding household food waste because framing complex problems in terms of individuals’ behaviours obscures systemic issues. Where a problem occurs is often not where the causes of the problem lie—and thus where solutions are best sought.

With food waste the problem might start with supermarkets. They’re directly responsible for just 5% of food waste in the UK, but arguably they can pass waste from the store to the household through the way in which food is sold. Through portion sizes, through promotions which encourage over-buying, or in a more general sense of being part of an unsustainable food system that devalues food and creates consumer expectations that bread should be available at 11 o’clock at night, and fruit and veg available all year round, whatever the season. Blaming the supermarkets is a popular past time. Only this doesn’t quite stack up either.

LSE FoodCycle Hub visit local Waitrose to gather food tht would otherwise go to waste

Waste is built into the supermarket system in a systemic sense. Meeting consumer demand is the surpermarkets’ mantra, but forecasting product volumes is highly problematic, leading to supply contracts which incentivise farmers to over produce. Supermarkets prepare for summer by contracting suppliers to grow salads and watermelons, for instance, only to have farmers plough those crops back into the ground when June proves to be a washout. But hang on a minute. Isn’t that meeting consumer demand? And aren’t we the consumers? Isn’t it a dynamic between consumer expectations and desires and supermarkets meeting them that leads to, for example, overly-prescriptive standards for how fruit and vegetables are supposed to look?

You might say: “Actually I choose not to shop at supermarkets. I choose not to buy things out of season. I shop for what I need and reuse leftovers whenever I can”. And if you say that then isn’t it really the choices of those that do choose to be supermarket shoppers that drive the inflated expectations of consumerism which supermarkets pander too? We seem to be back at blaming the consumer again. And so the circular argument of responsibility goes.

Gathering surplus food from Borough Market - Documenting Food Waste by Photographer Chris King

At the Sustainable Consumption Institute, at the University of Manchester, we have just completed a research project into food waste in the UK. Our research has involved spending time with people in their homes cooking and eating, and going shopping, it’s also involved analysing a large scale survey of how people have meals—who they eat with, how much time they spend cooking and eating—how that relates to leftovers produced, and how often leftovers get thrown away. And we’ve interviewed experts and campaigners involved in the issue of food waste—in retail, sustainability consultants, civil servants, campaigners and third sector organisations. We’ve tried to get out of the circular argument about supermarkets and consumers in order to understand why households waste food.

Framing behaviour in terms of individuals’ choices underestimates the constraints of conventions, institutions and infrastructures on individuals’ behaviour. It also fundamentally overestimates the degree to which much behaviour results from individuals deliberating and deciding, rather than following routines and habits. In other words it misunderstands much behaviour. And again, it obscures systemic issues.

Current volumes of household food waste can’t be viewed as a simple matter of consumer choice or irresponsible behaviour. Our research suggests that food waste arises as a consequence of households managing the complex and contradictory demands of everyday life. Food waste should be understood as a product of household routines, cultural expectations around cooking and eating, and the social organisation of food consumption.

So, for example, there’s a cultural ideal to cook and eat ‘properly’– especially cooking fresh ingredients from scratch. But our survey data shows that leftovers are more likely when meals are made from ‘fresh’ ingredients. There’s actually a tension between the cultural ‘good’ of cooking from scratch and the ‘bad’ of food waste.

Dinner Exchange East - Documenting Food Waste by Photographer, Chris King

Another example: family meal is a cultural convention that many of us consider a good thing. But our survey research shows the more socially significant a meal is – such as a dinner party with family and friends – the more food waste results. We’re not suggesting you should eat ready meals on your own! But we are suggesting that if we want to reduce household food waste we have to think about where, with who and when meals are eaten.

Of course there are other issues. Cooking skills for leftovers, taking the time to make shopping lists, the cost of food and cultural alienation from valuing food are all part of the picture. But overemphasising responsibility at the level of individuals’ behaviour is unhelpful.

So what about the system-level view? Supermarkets are the system, right? Well, not quite. Supermarkets are part of the politically driven post war food system which aimed to make cheap and plentiful food available to Western populations emerging from economic depression, war and rationing. Laudable aims which have led to food being too cheap—at least for some—to care about. Aims which have ignored the environmental costs of food production and actually driven food waste across the food system. Food waste is a symptom of that system. An unsustainable food system that to a large degree—and certainly in the context of the UK Government—politics has washed its hands of and left to the ‘free’ market and ‘consumer choice’.

Gleaning Network gathers parsnips being left unsold - Chris King photographing food waste

Food is too cheap for some—and too expensive for others. Food waste draws inequalities, in both the UK and globally, into stark relief. The food system maximises production rather than optimising nutrition. Tackling food waste is not sufficient to make the food system sustainable—not by any means—but it is necessary.

The story of food waste reduction in the UK is actually a positive one. Avoidable household food waste is substantially less than it was, the issue has a high public profile, and there’s broad engagement from food businesses, including the supermarkets, which are actually tackling issues of pushing food waste downstream in the supply stream to our bins and upstream to farmer’s fields. The time has come to use the engagement around food waste as a single issue to open up the bigger question of how we transform the food system into one based around sustainable nutrition for all.

You can read more about the Sustainable Consumption Institute’s food waste research here [pdf].

Dan Welch
Dan joined the SCI as a Research Associate in January 2014, having completed his PhD, funded by the SCI, in 2013. Dan has recently completed a 15 month ESRCSCI funded project ‘Households, retailers and food waste transitions’, led by Dr. David Evans. His next major research project addresses 'Sustainable Consumption & Production and Political Economy in the UK Food Service Sector'. He is also engaged in an ongoing project with Dr. Luke Yates developing a practice theoretical approach to collective action as well as developing his PhD research on sustainability communications.