September 29 is the United Nations International Food Loss and Waste Awareness Day. It is an important day of visibility for an issue at the heart of the climate crisis: food waste is responsible for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and as a country would be the third largest emitter behind the United States. United and China. It’s a day of hope: this year has seen a boom in investment in food tech, as well as lofty waste reduction commitments from a host of government organizations, retailers and food producers.
There are several angles for tackling the problem of food waste, with most attention given to reuse and salvage (diverting or recycling food that is about to go to waste). According to the EPA, the most important area for action when it comes to food waste is prevention – and in this area, the industry has its work cut out for it.
Want to avoid food waste? Start with better data.
Preventing food waste may seem like a no-brainer. Not only does this meet sustainability goals, but it also helps the bottom line: a study found that for every dollar retailers invested in reducing food waste, they received a 5x return. Retailers and brands can avoid waste through better forecasting, streamlined operations and increased food sales. But these initiatives require new ways of doing business: namely transparency and collaboration between retailers, suppliers and partners. And that means solving the data problem.
Actionable data is needed to find new tactics at all levels of the food waste challenge, including establishing baselines for improvement, identifying hotspots that need action, tracking progress and sharing feedback. achievements. Using data, retailers can explore shrinkage by department and by store, finding, for example, that wastage is particularly prevalent in low-volume departments like prepared food and bakery. Solutions may include improved ordering, store layouts that increase product turnover, or discounts on foods nearing their expiration date. But most food retail businesses don’t yet have easy access to this information.
“The biggest barrier we have seen to system-wide collaboration to reduce food waste is the lack of a structured and formalized process for reporting and sharing data, a simple and scalable process for But now, voluntary agreements like the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment in the United States and other similar collaborations around the world – where data is shared in a transparent, pre-competitive format – are helping to overcome this problem, allowing companies to work together to share best practices and information that benefits their entire industry” – Jackie Suggitt, Director of Capital, Innovation and Engagement at ReFED.
Why food waste has a data problem
The reality is that being data-driven isn’t easy without the right tools in place. Data barriers plaguing the retail industry include:
Implementation Challenges: There is no easy way for retailers to implement waste reporting across all of their stores, warehouses and distribution centers. Data is scattered, there is no clear manual for collecting it, and reporting is onerous. These challenges are even more difficult for smaller retailers with fewer resources.
Organizational Challenges: Most retail organizations do not have clear accountability for food waste reporting. And even if information is collected, there is no incentive to share it with the outside, with lingering skepticism that it could lead to a negative public image or reveal competitive secrets.
Standardization Challenges: It may seem like a small detail, but standardization is arguably the biggest data challenge of all. Each retailer reports food waste with their own units (from dollars to pounds to checkouts) and at their own pace (often annually, which is not frequent enough). This makes it nearly impossible to aggregate data to serve the entire industry.
Tech companies and nonprofits can work together to bridge the data divide
Here’s the good news: new technologies and innovative solutions have arrived to solve the enormous problem of capturing, standardizing and sharing data.
There must be a public-private partnership between retailers, non-profit organizations and solution providers to collaborate and share knowledge on waste reduction. Additional working groups can be formed to encourage the sharing of pre-competitive data between groups of retailers and CPGs, facilitating transparency and safely overcoming competition concerns.
Finally, the industry must create international standards for the measurement and reporting of food waste. The Food Loss and Waste Protocol is a standard used to calculate waste that is gaining traction as a singular playbook in the industry. The Food Waste Policy Action Plan, a partnership between organizations including the NRDC, Harvard Food and Law Policy Clinic, WWF and others, has advocated for international standards for date labeling, another issue thorny where inconsistencies can lead to food waste.
The causes (and solutions) of food waste are not simple. Technology that enables greater visibility and transparency, aligned with programs to encourage industry-wide collaboration, can help solve one of the greatest unresolved climate threats today.
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