Supermarket & Consumer Behaviour = Waste

Times are hard and this usually means the old call to ‘tighten your belt,’ issued by people who dine on venison and vintage wines. In the last decade more and more people have been loosening their belts as food prices dropped to ridiculously low levels. As recently as March this year the UK’s Independant had a report about the 20 million tons of food being thrown away each year in Britain – enough to rectify the food shortages of various African countries suffering constant starvation levels.

Well now things have turned around in some quarters. Food prices are now up. Simple arithmetic should inform us that a rise in prices coupled with a fall in the real value of money and the added stress of reduced working hours, job losses and consumer frugality, all adds up to less consumption. Even consumption of necessities like food ought to be affected in a recession. This is only partly the case. People in western countries are still shopping in bulk-consumption patterns. The reasons are many: long working hours leaving little time for daily, careful shopping; tight budgets for many families leading to shopping for 2-for-the-price-of-1 deals; lack of access to local outlets. The list could go on. The result is that a huge amount of food is wasted as it passes its ‘sell by date’ or use-by date.

Supermarkets and food producers (sometimes with government assistance) have long been guilty of having policies that lead to food waste. Every so often a news story appears where governments have paid farmers to keep land unused. The EU is constantly being criticised for its farming and food policies, among which are foolish ideas like destroying food because it doesn’t fit the official size and shape. All the large supermarkets have had policies concerning their ‘vegetable aesthetics’: no odd shapes, no brown spots, no dirt. Leading to the more expensive organic and market-garden subcultures.

Now in the grip of recession, food is still being wasted. A conservative estimate on various government websites (to be accepted with caution) stands at 7 million tons.  Tentative honourable mention should be given to Sainsbury’s who “plan” to use their 60,000 tons of waste a year to generate methane gas and electricity to power their stores – we can wait to see if reality matches the press announcements. This aside, supermarkets are still offering their “deals”, the 2-for-1, the special offers and the bulk-saver-packs, even though these have been shown to lead to consumer wastage. Bulk vegetables rot, bulk packages go out of date. Supermarkets and producers can make all the announcements they like, but the truth is they operate on the principle of overproduction and high sales, on the theory of supply-side economics. This is how they stay afloat in the mega-economy, this is the basis of their massive ‘growth’ and how chains manage to constantly open new branches ‘generating jobs’ (for a week or two until the business settles and they halve the workforce).

Many minds will come together, consultants and think-tanks will be paid high salaries to come up with ingenious technological solutions to tons of food waste, when the simple answer is for producers to stop overproducing and for consumers to stop recklessly over-consuming. The problem is, this method doesn’t fit too neatly into the neo-liberal economic model.


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