Changing food waste behaviours – Covid-19 and beyond

22 June 2020

The past few months have been challenging to say the least. Panic buying cleared supermarket shelves and some big brand shops introduced ration-like limitations on certain food items. But now, new patterns in food waste behaviour are beginning to emerge, suggesting the way in which we value food under lockdown has changed. So, can the current lockdown crisis help to ignite a long-awaited food waste revolution?

Less shopping, more cooking, less waste

Food waste is a huge problem experienced along the entire supply chain; one third of edible food is wasted globally each year. The cost to our planet and our pockets is immense; in 2018 alone, the UK wasted around 9.5 million tonnes or £19 billion worth of food. Household food waste accounted for over two thirds of this.

Recent reports suggest life under lockdown is having a positive impact on how much food we’re throwing away. Self-reported levels of household food waste have reduced by over a third. A recent study suggests 63% of us started shopping less often once we were asked to stay indoors, with far less nipping to the shops after work to ‘pick up a couple of extra bits’. It appears that recent restrictions and shortages have unnerved many of us enough to reconsider what food we use, how we use it, and what we throw away.

Moreover, supermarkets are reporting decreased sales across a range of convenience items, including salad packs, prepared vegetables and ready meals. Whilst reductions in food waste may well be driven primarily by changes to household budgets, it appears the general slow-down to our lifestyles has allowed for home cooking – and baking – to ramp up, as the recent run on flour testifies. Research carried out by Tesco as part of the Food Love Stories campaign found that 40% of people have reignited their passion for cooking as a result of lockdown, and 89% say they intend to keep cooking meals from scratch after the lockdown ends.

We’ve known for some time that those termed ‘casual consumers’ and ‘kitchen evaders’ who are most reliant on convenience food, are generally the most wasteful, so what happens as we begin to return to ‘normal’? We need to think of ways we can continue this positive reconnection with our food, whilst still meeting the convenience demands of many consumers.

Current trends and shopping behaviours

The convenience of online shopping is embraced by many. It provides shoppers with remote access to thousands of products, with hassle-free delivery to the front door. Yet, this instant connection to so many products can have repercussions, leading to a dangerous journey down the online shopping rabbit hole.

Food subscription boxes have experienced rapid growth over the past few years; market disrupters such as HelloFresh, Gousto and Mindful Chef supply the ‘precise ingredients for zero food waste’ straight to your door. Evidence shows that providing consumers with accurate portions of food as part of ‘meal kits’ can drastically reduce household food waste, and compared to individual journeys to the supermarket, can help to reduce transport emissions as well. That said, excessive packaging can be an issue with this kind of shopping, and trips to the supermarket will still be necessary for some basic items. This market is still in its infancy, making its overall impact on food waste in the UK currently relatively small, but there remains a huge opportunity for this pre-measured, subscription-style of shopping to make an impact.

Future win-win opportunities for all

With current restrictions on the number of people allowed in supermarkets at any one time – which might be here to stay – more home delivery orders are being fulfilled than ever before. Could our supermarkets, who already operate in this door-to-door space, introduce a similar service to bring these food waste reductions to scale? Might online supermarket shopping of the future offer a recipe bank as an option, calculating your shopping list for you based on the meals you choose, the number of people you’re feeding and what stock items you already have at home?

Could tapping into this subscription market meet the convenience needs of the consumer whilst also improving retailer supply chains? Such convenience offerings are also a key driver of loyalty, so it could be a win-win situation. With an extended home delivery fleet on the road, could this open up the possibility of more ‘take back’ and ‘return from home’ packaging solutions? Could charities and community groups tap into this expanding delivery fleet to redistribute more surplus foods to those in need – an area of support many organisations so desperately require? The potential synergies are endless.

With the classic supermarket blueprint facing a powerful change in consumer behaviour, there is an opportunity for a new type of service to emerge. At the start of the year, pre-Covid-19, I spoke to several large retailers who all confirmed there was significant scope to improve current supply chain management to further reduce food waste. With the added impact of the pandemic, which has rocked supply chains all over the globe, the need for supermarkets to respond with greater and more streamlined forecasting processes is more pressing than ever.

There is, without doubt, a significant challenge to face in moving forward with our new ‘normal’. However, this time is also ripe for change and new ideas.