Elena Vardanega, Strategist - FutureBrand Milan, discusses how we, as consumers, must adopt a more conscious and pragmatic approach towards food wastage.

If food waste were a nation, it would be the third-largest source of carbon emissions after China and the United States combined (Food Navigator, 2021). Food waste is, without a doubt, a global problem from an ethical, economic and environmental point of view. The topic, which is at the top of the agendas of many governments, if evaluated in terms of opportunities for brands, reveals great potential to emerge in a saturated and homologated market, taking a strong position and transforming it into one's own purpose.

We live in an era of precarious balance between opposing positions and paradoxes: on the one hand, we hear about initiatives and companies devoted to stemming the problem of food waste, and on the other side, the issue is ignored. This second attitude is due as much to the real disinterest of many, as to the sense of helplessness and failure of others who - victims of an acute form of eco-anxiety - remain immobile. We take sides for sustainability and fairness, but in practice we let ourselves become fascinated by the saving opportunities of below-cost products, often the result of underpaid labour. Some justify the waste of cheap food by its convenience and large-scale availability.

In principle, no one wants to waste food, especially within the family dynamic where the value of food is taught and guilt is handed down for every fruit, vegetable or piece of bread thrown away. Yet it is within the home that the worst figures are recorded. According to the UNEP Food Waste Index 2021, 931 million tons of food were wasted in 2019, 61% of which were in the family home (followed by the foodservice sector 26% and retail 13%). By restricting the target to a European level, the situation does not change. Households produce around half of the total food wasted in Europe. The data, therefore, displays inconsistency between what would be ethically right and what instead happens every day in our homes.

Eliminating food waste at home is the concatenated result of a series of behaviours that should be adopted systematically - from meal planning to shopping, to food storage and consumption. This is demonstrated by the significant drop in food in the dustbin during the lockdown when we were able to better manage food supplies. Across Italy, 27 kilograms of food was wasted by each person in 2020 (about 529 grams per week), 11.78% less than in 2019 (Waste Watcher International Observatory on Food and Sustainability, February 2021).

We now look to the role of brands in raising consumer awareness on the extent of the problem of wasted food and in promoting more eco-sustainable habits. Adopting a countercurrent, eco-conscious and proactive brand story with respect to food waste is a differentiation lever and a way to engage young people, who are more sensitive and informed about issues related to the environment and more sceptical in the face of false promises and marketing strategies. In Canada, for example, Unilever's Hellmann mayonnaise brand pioneered Use-Up Day involving a thousand families: participants were invited to combine leftover cereals, proteins and vegetables with various types of spices to create new recipes.

Thanks to this initiative, families have reduced food waste by an average of 33% in five weeks (Food Navigator, 2021). Another example is the Israeli Wasteless, one of the seven start-up finalists at the first edition of FoodTech Accelerator 2019. Wasteless creates electronic labels that - thanks to an algorithm based on scalable artificial intelligence - automatically reduce prices, applying discounts as they are approaching their expiration date. This in-store project allows to reduce food waste directly at the point of sale as well as allowing consumers to buy products at more advantageous prices and retailers to optimize revenue.

Eco-Conscious Halo

During the pandemic, interest in sustainable products increased for 37% of consumers globally (KPMG, 2021). Many brands are dedicating themselves to transforming potential waste into new raw materials for upcycled products, i.e. products made with ingredients not intended for human consumption, procured and processed using traceable supply chains which also have a positive impact on the environment. Mondelez has collaborated with the Upcycled Food Association to define guidelines for the start-ups that make up its SnacksFutures, their innovation hub in which new products are developed. These include CaPao Fruit Bites (snacks made with cocoa fruit scraps) and Dirt Kitchen Snacks (which offers veggie crisps based on dried tomatoes, courgettes and carrots). In addition to Mondelez, there are many other brands that convert possible organic waste into ingredients for drinks, protein bars and more. The idea is to use recycled ingredients for ultra-palatable recipes and products as Unilever did in its Cremissimo ice cream line in Germany, proposing a new chocolate flavour made with otherwise unused ice cream (40%). Since its launch in 2020, Cremissimo has sold 1.2 million tubs - allowing for a total saving of 160 tons of ice cream (Unilever, 2021).

The Aesthetics of Food

One of the biggest obstacles along the virtuous path of recycling is aesthetics. Bruised fruits and oddly shaped vegetables are instinctively discarded because they are judged to be bad. To combat waste, it is therefore imperative to find new strategies to contain the negative reactions associated with ‘Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables', as they were defined in the Marcel Worldwide campaign for Intermarché.

Babaco Market, the start-up that collects seasonal fruit and vegetables discarded for small defects or because they do not comply with the standards of the distribution channels, has thought about breaking the aesthetic canons. The products are delivered directly to your home every few weeks in a box with recipes and anti-waste advice. In addition to the guarantee of fresh products from a short supply chain, the start-up guarantees savings of up to 30% compared to the store and also donates unsold items to Recup, the charity that brings advanced products to local markets.

From Problem to Opportunity

Food waste must be tackled on several fronts, with brands, institutions and consumers all doing their part. Brands must radically transform the concept of waste, from a waste element to a resource to be used for the creation of upcycled and accessible products. Being a spokesperson for these issues can help the cause by also increasing the value of the brand. We as consumers must adopt a more conscious and pragmatic approach, abandoning the bad habit of simply throwing away food that we consider waste, and introduce new ways to reuse leftovers in everyday life, leftovers that become raw materials for new recipes and preparations. A return to the past, when food was precious.

This article appeared in MarkUp magazine October 2021

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