Changing our perceptions and habits is necessary to reduce waste and be more responsible for our food consumption. Read this story from our wonderful intern Romane Gardet.
In 2016 an atypical supermarket opened in Copenhagen. Its business model is based on the sale of products that is past their expiry date. Items are sold with a 30 to 50% discount on the regular price. The store is run by the DanChurchAid, a non-profit organization, and profits are used for charity. The organization collects products from supermarkets and then sells it thanks to the help of volunteers. On one hand, consumers doing their groceries in this store, called Wefood, are saving money and on the other hand, they contribute to fighting food waste.
The issue is far from exclusive to Denmark, indeed in Europe on average 173 Kg of food per capita is wasted each year (European Parliament, 2017). In Norway, Matvett (2018) estimated that food waste was equivalent to 81 Kg per capita in 2016. This is not only a financial loss. It also has an impact on the environment given that the products required water, fertilizer, and other energetic inputs to be grown, harvested, packed and delivered. According to the European Parliament (2017) 170 million tonnes of CO2 is “emitted from production and disposal of EU food waste”. In case it was not obvious; yes it contributes to climate change and global warming.
How is it possible? Where does the waste come from?
Food waste occurs during the entire value chain, however the majority is due to end-consumers. In other words, regular citizens like you and I. “Total general food waste in the three stages of the value chain amounted to 81 kg per person per year, and 74.8 kg or 92% occurred in households” (Matvett, 2018). One of the main reasons causing this waste is the overconsumption and the expiry date. Indeed, consumers tend to buy more than necessary and to forget products in the fridge until they expire. “The two main reasons for food discard were “forgotten about it in the fridge/cupboard” with a frequency of almost 45%, while “past its expiry date” was the second most important reason overall” (Matvett, 2018).
The problem is that a huge part of the products thrown away because of their expiry date is still edible. Why? “ Consumers typically interpret “best before” to mean “bad after”” (Gooch and al, 2019). A survey called “Food waste and date marking”, realized by the Eurobarometer (2015), shows that the label-date meaning is far from clear in consumers’ mind :
When asked about the meaning of “best before” labelling, less than half (47%) of those polled correctly said that this marking indicates that food may be consumed after the given date, but that it may not be at its best in terms of quality.
Nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents gave an answer which corresponds instead to the meaning of “use by” labelling, incorrectly saying that food should not be eaten past the “best before” date.
Even if Norway is not included in this study, its case is not very different. As a matter of fact, Norwegians are facing the same misconception on date marking as the EU’s members’ citizens. Hanssen and Møller (2013) revealed the importance of the misunderstanding concerning the appreciation of the freshness of products in Norway. People tend not to interpret the date label well. “Use by” means that one should not eat the product after the date mentioned on it, while “best before” does not mean that the product cannot be consumed after the date written on the packaging. A report from Norden called “Date labelling in the Nordic countries” quotes this survey and reaches the same conclusion :
The most common reason for throwing away food was that the food had “passed its expiry date”. This shows that many consumers do not relate rationally to the date label. Firstly, the expiry date was by far the most important reason for disposing of yoghurt and sour cream, which are products labelled with “best before” and which last well beyond the expiry date. Secondly, the expiry date was given as an important reason for both fresh bakery products and fresh fruit and vegetables, which are products without date labels in most cases. The results revealed not only the effects of poor planning and shopping routines, but also lack of understanding of date label when the consumer decides whether a product can be eaten or not.
Aware of this problem, since 2015 the leader of the movement “Spis Opp Maten” has advocated actors of the food industry to change their labelling in order to precise the meaning of the expiry date. As a result, in 2017 the brands Q and Prior, followed by Tine in 2018, decided to change their initial labelling for “Best before, but not bad after” on their dairy products and eggs (Nygård Havre, 2018). It is a noticeable effort from the producers, however, a lot of efforts are still required to tackle the food waste issue.
The advantages of Wefood model regarding responsible consumption trends and habits
Wefood presents several advantages to overcome the prejudices and expectations concerning the expiry date. First of all, the fact that this supermarket is run by volunteers avoids skepticism regarding the intentions of the brand or the organizations selling the products (Lombardot and Mugel, 2017). Indeed, consumers would not have the feeling that the supermarket is doing greenwashing given that profits are invested in charity.
Secondly, collecting the food supposed to be thrown, even if it still edible, is a way to be aware of the quantity of food wasted. The fact that garbages are taken away from our houses on a regular basis make people forget how much they waste because they cannot visually see it. “The organizations that collect and process waste, together with the social habitus that guides behavior, all tend to make us distance ourselves from waste both in our domestic environment and in our way of thinking about it […] The ease with which households can hand over responsibility for the management and disposal of their waste to a public body encourages laxity and exonerates them from proper awareness of the amount they generate” (Guillard and Roux, 2014).
Furthermore, this uncommon supermarket is adopting the utilitarian angle which is increasingly popular among consumers (Ertz and al, 2018). Following this idea, every unused resource is associated with a financial loss (ibidem). Expired products can be considered this way both for the store, which is not selling it, and the client who has paid for it without enjoying it. The most dramatic in this situation is the hidden losses. As mentioned previously, those products have consumed water, electricity and other resources.
Coming back to the financial aspect, clients of this kind of store are not only contributing to fight food waste but are also saving money thanks to the reduced prices. This last point matters because the main argument against sustainable consumption is the price, “Price is the main reason not to switch to responsible consumption. It is what restrains some people to do their shopping in stores identified as sustainable or responsible” (Lombardot and Mugel, 2017) (translated by the author of the article). Besides, one of the complaints from customers towards responsible consumption is the lack of individual “reward”, given that it generally benefits the society whereas it requires an individual’s efforts (Pinto and al, 2014). In this case, it is not a problem, the client can directly see its personal interest.
Having expired items on supermarket shelves instead of putting them in big bins next to stores helps to fight the assumption that those products should be considered as litter. Consumers can have doubts about the sanitary aspect. It is generally “a fear of physical, psychological, or symbolic contamination” (Guillard and Roux, 2014) that restrain people from getting expired products. This underlines the importance and the role played by social norms; they are “among the most important predictors of pro-social and green behavior” (Semprebon and al, 2018). Ertz, Lecompte, et Durif (2018) see social norms as a neutralization technique used by individuals to reject the blame of their unsustainable actions, or consumption choices. Throwing food away when it’s past its expiry date is a reflex for most of us, as we have interiorized the idea that consuming expired products is unhealthy and not proper behavior.
Overcoming prejudices to build a new relationship with food
The Wefood initiative gives the opportunity to question our perception of edible products, and to think about the way that expiry date is defined. Even though the Norwegian Food Safety Authority is providing some guidelines on the labeling of durability, in Norway (like in many other countries) there are no detailed rules for each industry and product categories. Producers are responsible for the definition of the date labeling their products. “Prepacked foods shall be labeled with a use-by or best before date. The labeling requirement takes health and quality into account. The date should be the date the food product keeps its specific properties, quality etc. based on the given storage conditions in unopened packaging” (Norden, 2015). It is then easily understandable that producers decide to put a short term date rather than a longer one, thus making sure that the product is still edible, and drastically reducing their exposure to potential troubles. That is why a detailed framework established by relevant authorities would avoid restricting the consumption of some products without forgetting the safety aspect. Besides, educating consumers regarding this issue is essential, as explained above “used by” and “best before” do not mean the same thing at all. The majority of consumers are mixing both terms, do not clearly understand them, and consequently are unaware that they are discarding edible commodities.
To sum up, there are indeed products that require us to be cautious because their consumption after a defined amount of time comes with risks towards health and well-being. However, regarding a lot of products we can do better when it comes to rethinking label dates answering to the question: Is it safe to eat this?, and changing our behaviors. Changing our perceptions and habits is necessary to reduce waste and be more responsible for our food consumption.
Ertz, M., Lecompte, A., & Durif, F. (2018). “It’s not my fault, I am in the right!” Exploration of neutralization in the justification of the support and use of a controversial technological collaborative consumption service. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 134, p254–264
Eurobarometer. (2015). Food waste and date marking. Coll. «Flash Eurobarometer». European Commission. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/instruments/FLASH/search/food%20waste/surveyKy/2095
European Parliament. (2017). Food waste: the problem in the EU in numbers.
Gooch, M., Bucknell, D., LaPlain, D., Dent, B., Whitehead, P., Felfel, A., Nikkel, L., Maguire, M. (2019). The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste: Technical Report; Value Chain Management International and Second Harvest; Ontario, Canada.
Guillard, V. and Roux, D. (2014). Macromarketing issues on the sidewalk: How “glearners‟ and “disposers‟ (re)create a sustainable economy. Journal of Macromarketing, 34(3), p291–312
Hanssen, O-J., Møller, H. (2013). Food Wastage in Norway 2013. Status and Trends 2009–2013. Report Oestfold Research: OR.32.13 ISBN: 978–82–7520–707–2.
Lombardot, E. & Mugel, O. (2017). Proposition d’un modèle explicatif de l’écart entre intention et comportement responsable en contexte d’achat alimentaire. Revue de l’organisation responsable, 12(1), p17–33
Matvett AS. (2018). Food Waste in Norway : Report on Key Figures 2016. Østfoldforskning. Retrieved from https://www.matvett.no/uploads/documents/OR.06.18-Edible-food-waste-in-Norway-Report-on-key-figures-2016.pdf