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Transparency in the food waste debate

As part of a drive to ensure that the debate around food waste and associated resources is directed towards areas where the greatest reductions can be made, in January 2015 the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published a combined retail food waste figure.

It formed part of a progress update against targets and commitments to 2020 set out in the BRC’s A Better Retailing Climate initiative. By releasing this figure, the retail industry met its commitment to increase transparency on food waste, and became the only UK industry to publish such information. We have committed to report progress on an annual basis.

Contrary to popular belief, the figures show that very little food waste comes from supermarkets and their depots. The figures, using data from seven major supermarkets – accounting for 87% of UK grocery sector – and independently collated by WRAP, show that in 2013 only 1.3% (200,000 tonnes) of all food waste came from the grocery retail industry.

With households producing almost half of the 15 million tonnes of food and drink waste thrown away each year in the UK, it means that the biggest opportunity to reduce the impact of food waste lies at home.

Beyond reducing their own food waste, supermarkets are acutely aware of their customers’ desire to get the most value from the food they buy. Since 2009, grocery retailers have signed up to voluntary targets to cut household food waste under the Courtauld Commitments, and have contributed to significant reductions in household food waste. But we want to do more.

Retailers have been working through WRAP’s ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ campaign and the ‘Ten Cities’ campaign with their customers to help them reduce household food waste, make it easier to purchase the right amount and to store food in the best way to prevent food waste. Retailers offer advice in their shops, on packaging and online on how to use and store leftovers, as well as amending freezing guidance and introducing innovative packaging to keep food fresher for longer.  

So far, by working together, household food waste has been cut by 15%, or around 1.3 million tonnes, between 2007-12, an impressive reduction in light of a growing population and sales volumes. But latest figures show that domestic food waste tonnage has plateaued since 2010, which appears to coincide with the withdrawal of Government information and education campaigns.

Although our members are doing everything they can to work with customers to reduce the amount of food thrown away at home, there is only so much we can do. If the UK is to reduce the level of household food waste successfully, we need the buy-in from a multitude of stakeholders with the Government taking an active role in managing and co-ordinating food waste reduction initiatives.

Retail food waste figure

The causes of food waste in the retail supply chain are varied, so retailers are taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing the issue. Supermarkets are working with farmers and producer groups to tackle food waste and losses in agriculture, for example, by making the most of the entire crop in the field or more of the carcass of animals. Other measures include reviewing current specifications for produce, smarter ways to forecast and opportunities to improve storage and transportation.

In addition, BRC members proactively discount products as they reach the end of their shelf life, and are working with organisations such as FareShare, FoodCycle and Community Shop to redistribute more unsold surplus food to those who need it.

With the prospect of proposals on reporting requirements and food waste targets emerging from the European Commission later this year, UK grocery retailers are clearly ahead of the curve.

Our members are pleased to introduce new levels of transparency into the food waste debate, and our figure tells a positive story about the vast efforts grocery retailers have made to reduce their own food waste. We hope this figure will shift discussions towards areas where we can make the biggest reductions in food waste – and that is in the supply chain and the home.

We have a huge contribution to make and will continue our work with suppliers and customers to build on the progress already made.       

 

Alice Ellison is the British Retail Consortium’s environment policy adviser

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