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Watching our waste


Supermarkets and consumers can both change their behaviour to reduce food waste, says Professor Yasemin Kor of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Wasted food in a bin liner.

Consumer expectation of cheap food and retailers’ fear of losing sales has created a “race to the bottom” that leads to increased food waste, says Yasemin Kor, Beckwith Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Yasemin Kor.
Professor Yasemin Kor

Supermarkets can help break this cycle by educating consumers on the concept of a “fair price” for farmers and retailers alike, while consumers can change their behaviour by reducing household overstocking of perishables and other items, Yasemin told an online seminar on food waste.

“Often farmers grow more than they’re able to sell” in order to meet demand from supermarkets ordering far in advance. “There’s a fear that they will miss a sale and the shelves will be empty,” she said of the supermarkets.

Consumers, on the other hand, “are pretty fickle” in their shopping habits, “so there’s a mismatching problem” that cascades upward through grocers and then the food chain, she told the event entitled What a Waste: Circular Food Systems and Sustainable Diets, which was organised by the Global Food Security IRC of the University of Cambridge.

“This isn’t necessarily in the best interest of the grocery stores” because “they are part of this vicious cycle” – using discounting and promotions to clear excess inventory and thus ending up with low margins, Yasemin said based on her research on food waste co-authored with Professor Jaideep Prabhu.

“That is kind of a race to the bottom type of model and strategy, and it doesn’t leave enough room for the companies to differentiate.”

She said studies have shown that consumers greatly underestimate the amount of food they waste, while they now view food waste as more acceptable than a couple of decades ago.

Yasemin said that the rise in online shopping may help alleviate food waste because online platforms come with shopping lists that might prevent the sort of impulse purchases people make at the supermarket.

The event was chaired by Professor James Wood of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. Other speakers included Dr Phil Baynes of Baynes Nutrition, Dr Karen Luyckx of Feedback Global, and Dr Christian Reynolds of City University, London.