Waste Not, Want Not

How can we develop a mindset of opportunity, not limitation?

Depending on where you’re from in the world, you’ll have your own childhood experience of being encouraged to clear your plate. “I want to see that plate spotless,” was the daily call in mine. “Eat up!”

If that didn’t land, it became “food costs money!”, swiftly followed by the horrifying “If you don’t eat it now, you’ll be eating it for your breakfast tomorrow”. And if I managed to withstand even that prospective grimness, I got the ‘hard stare’ and the killer line that marked the immediate end to any backchat: “There are children in the world who don’t have anything to eat.” And thus, The Guilt would get me.

I’m not alone here; for many of us, regardless of plate size or personal preferences, there was no such thing as wasting food. But it was often met with a confusing contradiction: there was also no such thing as over-eating. Plenty of food, however simple, meant well-provided for; chubby children was a stamp of good parenting. For guests, it was great hospitality; even if you didn’t have much to work with, you found a way to stretch it to plenty, so your guests would go home well-fed and without complaint.

And so, we ate up, because food cost money, which didn’t grow on trees. We ate up to please my mother, who had prepared the meal, and every meal, forever – often to an endless tune of ‘What’s for dinner?’, followed by an occasional ‘Eww…’ chorus. And we ate up, because, if we didn’t, it showed a lack of consideration for those who had less than us, and that just wasn’t right.

I was, of course, a child, so no doubt I wavered often. One instance of backchat that I recall was in fact my first and last – I think I suggested putting my crusts in the post (I know, I’m still ashamed). And I certainly have wavered as an adult, won over by cost and convenience. No-one’s perfect.

But this basic premise of valuing food - valuing how we get it, having a thought for those who haven’t got it, and making the most of it once we get it - still seems a crucial carry-forward from those days.

So let’s see how we can get it back.

Overproducing, overconsuming, undervaluing.

We used to be a lot more connected to where our food came from - we knew what was available in our hometown, what was in season, and what we’d have to look forward to. For me it was a small handful of hard-won strawberries grown for summer. Grapes as a rare treat. Melons on holiday. An occasional Dolmio night in later years. And turnip lanterns at Halloween; there were no pumpkins in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, however, as more foodstuffs became available, from further, for cheaper, we’ve developed a somewhat manic mindset of ‘I expect to have everything I might possibly want, waiting for me on the shop shelves or restaurant menu, on the off-chance I might want it at that exact moment in time’ - regardless of the need for it to travel thousands of miles to meet our notions for an exotic fruit or katsu curry. But with the UN stating that a third of the world’s food is thrown away, catering to our every whim is not exactly working out.

More and more, I’m looking back to look forward, and pondering my childhood principles a little more, I find that they pretty much map out the three stages of the food journey:

  1. Production

  2. Distribution

  3. Consumption

Valuing how we get it relates to the production and processing of food before it gets to our mouths. Because we expect everything, everything is produced, and we expect it to be in perfect condition, and - much of it - prepped and ready to eat. Thus both the imperfect and the peelings are sent to the skip, along with the feed, the fertilisers, the nutrients used up from the soil - so hard to replenish! - the picking, the sorting, the packaging, the transport, the fuel, and any other energy, efforts, resources, losses and damage that were required to produce it.

Having a thought for those who haven’t got it is a discussion on unequal distribution once the food is in the marketplace, and it’s much closer to home now. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it - we have absolute abundance for those who can afford it; every cuisine, every ingredient, every variation of meal size and snack, available on demand. But it’s exorbitant to those with little or nothing, of whom there are increasing numbers across the UK - 2.2 million are reported to live in food insecurity. The most in Europe. And so the charities, volunteers and social entrepreneurs step in (filling a void in policy and leadership that is making space for such inequality and wealth disparity, it should be said) to ensure as much edible food as possible is being donated, cooked and distributed to those experiencing poverty, when it would otherwise end up in landfill.

Which takes us neatly to making the most of it when we get it at the point of consumption. With the BOGOFs and the pre-prepped plastic-wrapped and the busy lives that keep us from the kitchen, we often forget to use products and ingredients up before they go off. Add the best-before dates - now being phased out, but ‘the fear’ remains - and anything we’re unsure of goes in the bin, packaging and all. The loss of cookery skills means loss of ingenuity to ‘rustle something up’ from ageing ingredients, and lack of know-how to cleverly use all the various parts. Ah, but it was likely pennies (as we have the cheapest food in Europe). So, what of it? Well, 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, as the food waste breaks down.

How does this relate to industry practice?

As consumers become more conscious of their choices, as unintended social and environmental consequences come to light, it’s no wonder that Provenance, Transparency and Circular Economy are firmly on the trends landscape - and, as much more a societal shift than a bit of light marketing buzz, they are not ones to ignore.

So instead of thinking of these conversations as a clamp-down on your activity, let’s choose to look at them as an opportunity to be inspired and evolve into a new era.

If you take some time to consider the food waste journey, you’ll see that over its course, the three distinct areas - production, distribution, consumption - are clear.

But, dig deep, and you’ll see that not one of those areas exists in isolation. Each one crosses over into the previous, and the next, whether it’s through packaging, or scheduling, or product development, or advertising. And not only that, they cross over into different sectors to, from agriculture and food production to retail and hospitality, to architecture, design and construction, to marketing and communication, to public health and education, and more.

So no matter which area you operate in, you must have at least a broad understanding of the others (and I’ll expand on these in future posts). Working in isolation means that, while you may think you’ve solved a problem in your practices, you’ve merely pushed it along to someone else.

If you really want to start solving problems through your brand, look inward to see what you can do, then outward to discover who can help.

Seeking out new opportunities for brand and product innovation in the spirit of creativity and collaboration, while supporting positive social and environmental change.

How exciting is that?

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