First Admit You Have a Problem, Then Get Help: What Tesco Should Do Next

24/10/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 22/12/2013 10:12 GMT

I want to start by saying a massive 'well done' to Tesco for publishing their food waste figures, and to Wrap for (I'm sure) pushing them hard to do so. I think we might look back on this as a really significant moment. It is a corporation admitting it has a problem - something we don't often see, and of course the vital first step towards a solution.

This could mark a next step in the shift of corporate communications towards publicly facing into the big intractables - this announcement is of the same ilk as Coca Cola tiptoeing into genuine discussions around obesity over the last year, but goes one vital level beyond.

What Coca Cola did by entering the fray on obesity was in itself impressive, if to some degree inevitable. Sooner or later, they were going to have to recognise that soft drinks do play a major part in the issue; the weight of opinion was simply too great. And well done to them for doing so. But with their focus on energy balance, they stopped short of admitting any real role in the problem - it's not that we're doing anything bad, their underlying message goes, it's that lifestyles have changed around us.

But of course the flaw in the argument is that the proliferation of Coca Cola and the increase in soft drink consumption, particularly in young people, is absolutely part of the change in lifestyles - and that Coke, with their massive marketing spends, are absolutely part of what's driven that change. So while they have started to tiptoe into claiming some moral agency in the obesity crisis, they're brandishing a big fat sign with 'NOT OUR FAULT' written on it as they do so. It's a move on from trying to draw attention away from the negative impacts of your product onto some other nicety, as most corporate social responsibility still does - but it falls short of really facing up.

Tesco's announcement, potentially, is different. If Coke are still saying 'there's a problem that we're involved in, but we're not the problem', Tesco are saying 'we are part of this problem - but we can't solve it on our own'.

The difference could be huge. It could be the difference between retaining the slick exterior of corporate infallibility, keeping consumers in their place as passive recipients of the wisdom of the company on the one hand; and admitting a problem, with vulnerability and openness, and asking people - not just as consumers, but as citizens - to help solve it.

What would taking this opportunity on look like? I think there are three levels. First, Tesco would address everything they can do within their current agency - working with suppliers to understand waste in their chains, and removing the incentives to their customers that they know result in waste at that end (this much they are already doing, it seems).

Second, they would invert the usual way of the market and move from competition to collaboration - they might work with Wrap and the other supermarkets to establish a reporting mechanism for food waste in supermarkets, published annually and with shared reduction targets. If they do this, there's no reason why in five years' time Asda, Tesco, Morrison's and Sainsbury's wouldn't fight as hard and as publicly to come out with lower waste figures as they currently do over lower prices.

Third, and to my mind most importantly, they would open the conversation with people not just as consumers but as citizens about what we can all do to reduce food waste - supporting open source innovation processes, hosting public discussion and debate, facilitating changes in education, and so on.

The third level is the most important because it is at that stage that a company like Tesco could actually be part of moving us beyond the most significant root cause of food waste, namely the fact that we see ourselves as consumers not citizens. It is because we operate in this frame that we demand visually perfect fruit and veg because as consumers uninvolved in food production that's all we are able to judge; that we don't think about waste enough already because actually buying more has always been the best thing we can do, whether we use it or not; and that we buy too much salad when it's on offer, because getting a good deal is the absolute prerogative of that archetype of modernity, the Savvy Consumer.

The simple fact is, Tesco don't have agency in every aspect of solving the problems around food waste, any more than do Coca Cola over obesity or, say, Vogue magazine over child sexualisation (as I've written elsewhere). They could stop where they are, and I would argue they would already have done more than almost any other corporation to be genuinely 'responsible'.

But they could do a hell of a lot more by pushing us, as citizens not consumers, to join in and help them solve the problem they've admitted they're part of.

Jon is exploring ideas relating to consumerism and citizenship and invites your comments at the New Citizenship Project.