Food brands have both a responsibility and a great opportunity to act on the huge problem of food waste. Alex Lewis, Co-founder, Revolt, outlines three innovative ways brands can get involved.

This article is part of a Spotlight EMEA series on how brands can shift the sustainability conversation. Read more

Tackling food waste is big news right now. In November 2023, the UK’s King Charles used his 75th birthday to officially launch the Coronation Food Project, which aims to support the nation during the cost-of-living crisis by redistributing food destined for landfills. And in recent weeks, we’ve seen several brands make big announcements about their programmes to tackle food waste, including Unilever, Walmart, Danone, Spar and Pizza Express.

This is not surprising; food waste is a massive global problem – a third of all food produced globally goes to waste (World Food Programme). Governments around the world are undertaking actions to tackle food waste, but it’s simply not enough. Crucially, food waste is an area where consumers can make a significant difference in their actions to drive sustainability and environmental protection. And it’s an area where food brands can also make a huge difference in ways that can help to fuel their marketing and drive business growth.

In the UK alone we throw away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in a single year. At the same time, over 8 million people are in food poverty. But it's not just a societal issue, food waste is also a climate issue. When we waste food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to grow, harvest, transport and package it. And if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane – a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. If food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter (UNEP).

Some governments are working hard to help reduce food waste. Korea has made individuals and businesses separate and weigh their food waste, and are charged a fee based on how much waste they produce. Increasingly, European countries are adopting ambitious targets for food waste reduction, but more needs to be done to drive action. This July, the UK rolled back on plans to make food waste reporting mandatory citing costs to large businesses that would be passed on to the consumer. 

Food brands have both a responsibility and a great opportunity to act, and we believe there are three main ways brands can fight the good – food waste – fight.

Innovation: Turning waste into opportunity

By looking at food wasted in the supply chain, or finding opportunities to introduce food waste to create a product, brands can simultaneously innovate and reduce carbon emissions. Take the food waste in your supply chain and turn it into something positive. For example, using waste to create new products, or creating renewable energy from unusable waste. Innovation drops work well here. These small-scale releases of purpose-led products or services help signal the direction of the business overall. Ecover recently launched a limited run of cleaning products made using up to 97% rescued food waste.

The company Trazable digitises food supply traceability records using blockchain technology. This allows suppliers to control the life cycle of a product as they can find out immediately when food is spoiled or contaminated. 

And as much as tech and AI will inevitably have a big effect, simpler tactics such as working closer with factory teams can also yield great results as Unilever has found on its quest to halve food waste by 2025. By looking at food wasted in the supply chain, or finding opportunities to introduce food waste to create a product, brands can simultaneously innovate and reduce carbon emissions. 

These innovations can provide the substance for purpose-led sustainability communications. Instead of communicating a corporate 2030 goal that no-one really cares about, an innovation, one available now, shows a more immediate commitment to sustainability targets.

 Partnerships: No one company can do it alone

As with any major issue, it will take a huge group effort to make an impact. To add expertise and credibility to brand actions, partnerships can be an excellent idea. Full-service recycler Denali and Walmart work together to provide food waste recycling at Walmart’s 4,700 stores throughout the US. Pizza Express has partnered with surplus food marketplace, Too Good To Go, to help reduce food waste from its restaurant operations.

Others have taken a more creative approach, Ocado food delivery teaming up with the comic book Beano to launch their first cookbook, with recipes only featuring the food we most commonly throw away. From NGOs, to apps, to publications, there are so many ways to collaborate and fight food waste. 

Behaviour change: Helping consumers to take action

For high-income countries the proportion of food that is wasted is highest at the consumption stage. Brands can play a huge role in helping people change the way they store, cook, eat and share food to avoid waste. Supermarkets have attempted to stop food being thrown away at home by ‘use by’ dates and replacing them with ‘best before’. There’s still a role to play in helping to educate people to know when food is edible. For example, the smell of milk, the colour of produce, the texture etc.

Other brands have made a success of helping people share their waste with others. OLIO attempts to stop food waste by connecting those with food they don’t need with people who do. Too Good To Go connects retailers with food that’ll go to waste with people willing to take a punt on a surprise selection of food at the end of the day. Ingredient brands can help inspire people as to how to use up leftover food. Hellman’s mayonnaise helped people to use up food that’s been sitting in the fridge with recipe suggestions. 

Food waste is a massive global issue, one which needs a huge group effort. Those that find a way to tackle food waste in a way that is innovative and beneficial for others, will not only be solving a climate issue, they’ll have a strong foundation for sustainability communications that help build a stronger, more valuable brand.