Economic and Social Research Council
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Getting to grips with our food waste

The UK's food waste problem is galvanising agreement between retailers, policymakers, NGOs, activists, campaigners and consultants, says research from the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) at the University of Manchester.

One third of the food currently produced for humans to eat is wasted. Until recently, responsibilities for food waste were pushed onto the shoulders of individuals and households. "Initial responses either blamed consumers for their assumed lack of concern and cooking skills or else positioned food waste as a matter of consumer choice and behaviour change," says project leader Dr David Evans.

But research by SCI shows that the issue is much more complex. A survey of 2,800 consumers shows that conventions generally seen as positive – cooking from fresh ingredients, the nuclear family meal, and eating with friends and extended family – are more likely to give rise to surplus food, which is at risk of becoming waste.

Moreover, since 2012, austerity, food price inflation, food poverty, the growing use of food banks, and concerns about food security, environmental sustainability and climate change, have all come together to transform responses to the challenge of food waste reduction.

"Our research suggests that a surprising multi-stakeholder coalition has rapidly developed around this issue and there is broad consensus among retailers, activists and policymakers," explains Dr Evans. "Crucially, there is recognition that we must move beyond 'behaviour change' and recognise, and advocate for, distributed responsibility."

Supermarkets, who are directly responsible for only five per cent of food waste, are taking measures to help suppliers and customers waste less. Current initiatives include the introduction of guaranteed minimum orders for suppliers, better redistribution of surplus food to charities, improved packaging and a clearer focus on helping consumers to avoid waste.

The reasons for supermarkets getting on board are complex, but they do believe customers care about food waste and inactivity could lead them to shop elsewhere. Among all stakeholders, researchers identified a sense of moral outrage regarding food waste and a genuine shared desire to tackle the problem.

"It will be interesting to see if this move beyond behaviour change and the cohesion between parties that are usually rather antagonistic is indicative of broader change in how retailers and their stakeholders approach other social or environmental issues," says Dr Evans.

Further information

This article was published in the Spring 2016 issue of the Society Now magazine.


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