Circular economy given a boost, as leading UK supermarkets tackle food waste
The circular economy has been boosted early into 2023, with a flurry of announcements from brands and suppliers looking to help support the ideology. As we explained in our recent blog on the topic, the circular economy seeks to eliminate waste, instead focusing on reusing and recirculating materials to preserve both the environment and natural resources. It also aims to foster the regeneration of natural environments, which would otherwise be damaged by resource extraction[i].
You can read more about the circular economy and how individuals can introduce the concept of circularity into their lives here.
One of the largest contributors to global emissions is the food industry, and an estimated 8-10% of greenhouse emissions are caused by food waste specifically[ii]. This is a significant issue: according to the UNEP’s most recent Food Waste Index Report conducted in 2021, around 931 million tonnes of food waste was generated in 2019[iii]. Of this, 61% came from households, 26% from food service and 13% from retail. Overall, the UNEP suggests that almost a fifth (17%) of global food production may ultimately be wasted[iv].
Food retailers are seeking to help address this, both tackling in-store loss (for example, best before dates seeing food removed from shelves, so-called ‘wonky’ vegetables being deemed unsuitable for sale as they are unsightly) as well as in the homes of consumers (explaining best before dates are guidance, providing recipes and education on using ingredients and foodstuffs which are readily wasted).
Following several other major UK supermarkets, The Co-op has recently announced that over the coming weeks, best-before dates will be removed from the vast majority of its fresh produce lines with the exception of “a small number of the more perishable products” such as berries. It follows similar changes made at other UK supermarkets late last year, including M&S, Aldi, Lidl, and Asda. These supermarkets have arguably been slow on the uptake- Tesco began removing best-before labels in 2018[v], and Sainsbury’s in early 2022. The impact of unused waste is considerable, Marija Rompani, director of sustainability and ethics at John Lewis Partnership, told Sky News last year:
"UK households throw away 4.5 million tonnes of edible food every year, meaning that all the energy and resources used in food production are wasted. By removing best before dates from our products, we want our customers to use their own judgment to decide whether a product is good to eat or not, which in turn will increase its chances of being eaten and not becoming waste."[vi]
At present, retailers are required to have use-by and/or best-before dates on certain food and beverage products under rules set by the Food Standards Agency (FCA)[vii]. Use-by dates are applied as a deadline, and food should not be eaten after these dates due to the risk of food poisoning. However, best-before dates are simply guidelines as to when foods are in their prime to eat. It has been found that many customers mix the two terms up, throwing away food as soon as it reaches its best-before date because they assume it is unsafe after this point. To support the removal of best-before dates on some of its products, the Co-op is also introducing on-pack guidance on fruits and vegetables to highlight the optimum storage conditions to prolong product life.
Further addressing in-store food waste, Sainsbury’s has also announced changes. In this instance, the supermarket has explored ways to minimise the waste of fruit and vegetables that are perfectly fit to eat but would go to waste- for example, surplus stock or ‘wonky veg’ which doesn’t meet cosmetic standards. To tackle loss, Sainsbury’s will offer boxes containing a variety of loose fruit and vegetable stock; these will be available in 200 of its UK stores following successful trials last year. Notably, the supermarket aims to reduce food waste across its value chain by half by 2030, including within customer homes.
Priced at £2, the new ‘Taste Me, Don’t Waste Me’ boxes will include a variety of loose fruits and vegetables that would have otherwise gone to waste. It’s hoped the low price point will also help consumers eat healthier at a time when the cost-of-living crisis is impacting household budgets. Richard Crampton, Director of Fresh Food at Sainsbury’s, has said:
“At Sainsbury’s we’re committed to helping our customers access tasty, nutritious food that’s better for them and the planet too. It’s great to see that shoppers have been enjoying the ‘Taste Me, Don’t Waste Me’ boxes, which is why we’re really pleased to roll out the trial to over 200 supermarkets, helping even more people across the country. We believe that everyone deserves to eat well at an affordable price, and we hope this additional support will ensure that good quality food doesn’t go to waste.”[viii].
Technology retailers also buying into circularity, as leading UK provider expands offering of second-hand goods
The introduction of actions to grow the circular economy is not limited to food and textiles; the technology sector has seen an uplift in the demand for re-used and refurbished goods. UK tech retailer Currys has recently expanded its offering of refurbished technology products, having successfully trialled the resale of preowned mobiles, laptops and Chromebooks on currys.co.uk in November last year[ix]. The move followed the recognition of growing eco-consciousness amongst the British public, as well as the financial challenges of the cost-of-living crisis posed.
Since the trial began, Currys reports that sales of second-hand items have boomed, with 80% of the refurbished product lines selling out within the first week of sales; in particular, they note high demand for refurbished laptops. It tallies with national data, whereby a recent survey by Deloitte found that 40 per cent of UK consumers had purchased second-hand or refurbished goods in the past 12 months[x].
Whereas the trial saw goods only available from the ‘Currys Clearance’ eBay store, consumers can now purchase refurbished products directly via currys.co.uk. The retailer is also offering a greater range of products, with second-hand tech in ‘very good’ and ‘fair’ conditions, where previously only items listed as ‘excellent’ were available. Regardless of their condition, all items are sold with a 12-month technical guarantee.
Mandeep Gobindpuri, Head of Development – Circular Economy at Currys, said:
“In the UK we produce the second highest amount of e-waste per capita in the world. As much as we all love brand-new tech, we need to address this challenge. E-waste is a core reason why we are committed to our ‘Long Live Your Tech’ campaign, which helps customers make more informed environmental decisions when buying and disposing of technology. Buying refurbished saves customers money and saves good tech from landfill. This trial is a win for customers, and a win for the planet.”[xi]
[ii] Over one-third of global food is wasted, with economic and environmental repercussions; initiatives to reduce food waste or repurpose it are vital in the pursuit of net zero | Zero Carbon Academy
[iii] UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 | UNEP - UN Environment Programme
[v] Tesco removes 'best before' dates on some fruit and veg - BBC News
[vi] Waitrose to scrap 'best before' dates and urge shoppers to 'use their own judgement' | UK News | Sky News
[vii] Co-op scales back best-before dates as Sainsbury’s launches surplus fruit and veg boxes - edie
[viii] Sainsbury’s rolls out £2 ‘Taste Me, Don’t Waste Me’ fruit and veg boxes to help reduce food waste – Sainsbury's (sainsburys.co.uk)
[ix] Currys Takes Refurbished Tech Online | Currys PLC
[x] Sustainability & Consumer Behaviour 2022 | Deloitte UK
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