Food waste is a growing concern…as is the packaging we use to minimise it. But food and sustainability are intertwined.

Food means survival. It can bring people together – and pull societies apart. The affordability of nutritional food affects health, and its absence places a burden on governments. Producing and selling food provides a livelihood for many, but supply chains can trigger trade disputes and social tensions with consequent economic impacts. COVID-19 amplified these aspects.

An increasing global population means unprecedented demand for food and calories. But production of food has significant environmental impacts. Agriculture produces almost a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions and the world needs to decarbonise to meet Paris Agreement goals.

Attentions thus turns to the vast amounts of food we waste. Minimising this inefficiency will be vital for addressing growing demand.

Food waste is also a source of cost and inefficiency in the supply chains of retailers. For many years, plastic packaging has been a major tool for minimising this waste. Although it is extremely polluting, it is cheap, protects against damage, and prolongs the shelf life of perishable products.

However, sustainable development and waste considerations are rising up the agendas of policymakers and investors. Retailers are under pressure to minimise both food waste and packaging waste. But this challenge should not be ignored; policy momentum in this area is growing.

In 2015 the United Nations developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals that require action from businesses, investors, governments and civil society to achieve globally applicable targets by 2030. These include halving food waste at retail and consumer levels and significantly reducing food losses along production and supply chains.

The European Union launched a Green Deal in 2020 that includes a Circular Economy Action Plan requiring all packaging to be re-usable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. Meanwhile the UK is introducing a plastics tax in April 2022 to encourage greater use of recycled content in packaging.

Retailers need to be creative in responding to these policy developments. The aim is not to eliminate plastics but to manage their use, abandoning materials that cannot be recycled, building circularity into supply chains to ensure re-use if possible, and redesigning products to use less packaging.

Most food waste is generated at a household level. Nevertheless, retailers can address this through policies such as consumer education, and reforms to food labelling including sell-by and best-before dates.

By adapting to these policy developments, businesses should benefit beyond simply achieving a good environmental, social and governance status. Building infrastructure to support a more sustainable way of operating could bring cost advantages. There are reputational benefits too; consumer demand is mounting for companies to address these issues.

As awareness and policy-level discussions about the circular economy and sustainable development rise up the agendas of investors, governments and consumers, retailers will increasingly be under scrutiny for their waste generation. This should therefore form a key part of their environmental, social and governance risk considerations.

First published 2 September 2020.

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