Sainsbury's Food Waste Shows Hunger For Change

22/09/2016 12:16
Diane Diederich via Getty Images

Sainsbury's is the second British retailer to publicly report the amount of food it wastes within its stores' operations and this week was reported to be the leading supermarket when it comes to redistributing surplus food. At Feedback, we applaud their new transparency, and efforts to increase redistribution, but what these numbers really show is how much more work needs to be done to prevent good food from going to waste.

Sainsbury's wasted 35,832 tonnes of food in its stores last year. Adding to this the amount of food that is redistributed to people, the total is 38,767 tonnes. Assuming that all of this food was suitable for human consumption at some stage of its life on the supermarket shelf, this figure can be regarded as the total amount of surplus food Sainsbury's generated in 2015/2016.

Why is this last figure important? Food waste is a symptom of overproduction. Our wasteful food system is swallowing up vital natural resources such as land, water and fossil fuels to grow food that is never eaten. Furthermore, overproduction contributes to overconsumption, which can lead to diet-related health issues such as obesity and diabetes. Comparing this data against figures from 2014/2015 shows that Sainsbury's has only managed to reduce its store-level surplus by 2.5%. Allowing for redistribution, the amount of food not eaten from Sainsbury's stores has reduced by 7.1% in the last year.

As shocking as these figures are, they are only the tip of the food waste iceberg. Behind the amount of food wasted in supermarkets is a colossal amount of waste further up the supply chain, particularly on farms, as a result of retailer's strict cosmetic specifications, last minute order cancellations and poor forecasting - all of which cause economic problems for farmers.

Tesco was the first retailer to publicly report how much food it wastes. Not only is their data third-party audited, but they have made concrete efforts to begin measuring how much food is wasted in the supply chains of their 25 most popular products. Tesco is far from perfect, but by measuring and publicly reporting how much food is wasted in their supply chain, they are able to set ambitious goals to reduce this waste and are able to measure the social and environmental impact of these changes. For example, Tesco claim that their 'Perfectly Imperfect' apple and strawberry ranges have increased crop usage by 10% and 7% respectively.

Sainsbury's website suggests they are attempting to prevent waste by addressing cosmetic specifications and 'working closely' with their suppliers. Yet without transparent information on how much food is currently wasted it will be impossible to show how much food these initiatives will actually save. Sainsbury's should go one step further than Tesco and publicly report how much food is being wasted throughout their supply chain.

Sainsbury's are taking action to ensure that as much of their surplus food as possible is redistributed or sent to livestock feed, and other retailers should follow suit. However rather than celebrating increases in the percentage of food redistributed, supermarkets should reduce the total amount of food wasted.

Sainsbury's claims on its website that, "AD [anaerobic digestion] is at the bottom of our 'waste hierarchy' ", and they proudly boast that they have not sent any food waste to landfill since 2013.This is important as Sainsbury's are demonstrating a clear commitment to ensuring no food ends up at the bottom of the traditional food waste hierarchy, i.e. landfill, incineration or composting. Furthermore, they have been able to measure a 9.4% decrease in the amount of food waste sent to AD. Yet, while this is commendable, extracting energy from food that has been grown, harvested, packaged, distributed and chilled is a seriously inefficient use of natural resources. This inefficient process is currently incentivised by government subsidies as Feedback has highlighted in a recent inquiry on food waste launched by the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.

Feedback welcome Sainsbury's announcement this week in which they have started to address the huge quantities of waste for which they are responsible. However, they have a lot of work to do, as recognised by their Head of Sustainability: "we know we are only at the start of our food waste reduction journey and we have a long way to go as we work towards the Courtauld commitment of a 20% reduction in food waste by 2025."

It is clear that Sainsbury's is moving in the right direction, but if they are serious about tackling food waste then prevention must be at the heart of their mission. Sainsbury's should focus on increasing their overall reduction figure to 50% in line with the UN's goal of halving food waste by 2030. This figure must incorporate the amount of food waste within Sainsbury's supply chain, and this data needs to be third party audited and publicly reported to make transparency an industry norm.

Supermarkets are finally feeling the pressure when it comes to food waste, and Feedback will be monitoring them closely over the next year to make sure that they 'taste the difference' between ambitious gestures and committing to effective long term actions to prevent food waste.