Curbing Food Waste Saves Money, As Well as the Planet

This Originally Appeared In The Telegraph On March 6.

Imagine a land mass greater than China. Now imagine that land is only used to produce food. Then suppose all the crops and produce from those 2.5bn acres are not eaten. Imagine all of that – and you have grasped the amount of food the world wastes every year.

Every year a third of the world’s food is wasted. In terms of weight, it adds up to around 1.3bn tonnes. In the UK alone, we waste over 10m tonnes of food in a year.

By any standard, these are huge numbers. This level of waste is clearly not acceptable. The case for action becomes even stronger when we consider that 1 in 9 people are malnourished worldwide.

There are other reasons too why food waste needs to be addressed. Take climate change. Food waste today is responsible for around 8pc of global greenhouse gas emissions – if it were a country, food waste would be the world’s third-largest emitter, after China and the USA. So there are strong – even overwhelming – moral, social and environmental reasons to reduce food waste. But with this imperative is also an opportunity.

This week a new report will be released on behalf of Champions 12.3 – a group of public and private sector leaders who have made a commitment to help halve global food waste per capita by 2030, in line with Target 12.3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It sets out the economic arguments for reducing food waste.

The findings could not be clearer. Based on analysis covering 1,200 business sites across 700 companies in 17 countries – representing the manufacturing, retail, hospitality and food service industries – the report shows that almost every time a business made an investment in curbing food waste, there was a positive return on that investment. For every £1 invested in reducing food waste, half the business sites had at least a £14 return.

In other words, reducing waste offers real business opportunities. So we need to put food waste on the boardroom agenda. CEOs rely on hard numbers. Until now, there hasn’t been a clear set of data and financial analysis that business leaders can point to on food waste. Our ambition with this report is to change that and make sure food waste gets the focus from business that it deserves.

But this is also about courage. We need businesses to show leadership and face the scale of the issue. That is why as Champions 12.3 we are calling on businesses to do three things.

First, set stretching targets. The Sustainable Development Goal is clear – halve per capita food waste by 2030 at the retail and consumer levels, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. At Tesco, we have also set ourselves the goal that by the end of 2017 no food that is safe for human consumption will be wasted from our UK retail operations.

The second step is transparency. In 2013, Tesco took the step of publishing its UK food waste data. The numbers reveal that less than 1pc of our food is wasted. This probably makes us one of the most efficient retailers in the world. But in a business that serves around 50m customers a week, that still adds up to around 60,000 tonnes every year – around 30,000 of which are safe to eat.

Over the last few months, more retailers have signed up for transparency. I would like to pay credit to Mike Coupe and Sainsbury’s for publishing their waste figures for the first time last year. The next step is for all UK retailers and more food businesses to share their data – from members of the IGD through to the Food and Drink Federation.

To do this, we need a clear, consistent measurement methodology. Last year the Champions 12.3 worked to help establish this through the Food Loss and Waste Protocol. Four years ago, Tesco set out our own methodology but we did this in isolation. So we have engaged the food industry and industry bodies to work together on a common framework that is in line with the protocol.

If we can find common ground, and build on the support expressed by the Consumer Goods Forum, we will change the approach we have at Tesco to adopt the new methodology. The point is that what we need is a clear, category specific measure of food waste, rather than the aggregated data currently provided by the retail industry.

The third step is innovation. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so what needs to be done will vary. In developing countries, tackling food losses during production, handling and storage is critically important. In developed countries and urban areas, steps to prevent food waste in retail operations, restaurants and the home can have the greatest impact.

In our case at Tesco, a key innovation has been developing a new partnership with the food charity FareShare and the social enterprise FoodCloud. It is designed to make sure that any surplus food that’s safe to eat from our stores is shared with food charities each evening. We’ve already rolled the partnership out to over 1,100 stores and it will be in all stores by the end of the year.  This last year we have estimated we have donated over 5,000 tonnes of edible food.

No matter what business we work in, the key thing is to see the scale of the challenge and take action. This report shows there’s no longer any social, environmental or economic reason not to act. Even if the moral imperative doesn’t move us, the clear business case for reducing food waste should persuade every CEO.

Dave Lewis is the Chairman of Champions 12.3 and Group Chief Executive of Tesco