Curbing food waste saves money, as well as the planet

Tesco's Group CEO Dave Lewis, as Chairman of Champions 12.3, sets out the business case for tackling food waste globally.

Imagine a land mass greater than China. Now imagine that land is only used to produce food. Then suppose all the crops and produce from those 2.5bn acres are not eaten. Imagine all of that – and you have grasped the amount of food the world wastes every year.

Every year a third of the world’s food is wasted. In terms of weight, it adds up to around 1.3bn tonnes. Across the EU alone, we waste over 88m tonnes of food a year.

By any standard, these are huge numbers. This level of waste is clearly not acceptable. The case for action becomes even stronger when we consider that 1 in 9 people are malnourished worldwide.

There are other reasons too why food waste needs to be addressed. Take climate change. Food waste today is responsible for around 8pc of global greenhouse gas emissions – if it were a country, food waste would be the world’s third-largest emitter, after China and the USA. So there are strong – even overwhelming – moral, social and environmental reasons to reduce food waste. But with this imperative is also an opportunity.

This week a new report has been released on behalf of Champions 12.3 – a group of public and private sector leaders who have made a commitment to help halve global food waste per capita by 2030, in line with Target 12.3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It sets out the economic arguments for reducing food waste.

The findings could not be clearer. Based on analysis covering 1,200 business sites across 700 companies in 17 countries – representing the manufacturing, retail, hospitality and food service industries – the report shows that almost every time a business made an investment in curbing food waste, there was a positive return on that investment. For every £1 invested in reducing food waste, half the business sites had at least a £14 return.

In other words, reducing waste offers real business opportunities. So we need to put food waste on the boardroom agenda. CEOs rely on hard numbers. Until now, there hasn’t been a clear set of data and financial analysis that business leaders can point to on food waste. Our ambition with this report is to change that and make sure food waste gets the focus from business that it deserves.

But this is also about courage. We need businesses to show leadership and face the scale of the issue. That is why as Champions 12.3 we are calling on businesses to do three things.

First, set stretching targets. The Sustainable Development Goal is clear – halve per capita food waste by 2030 at the retail and consumer levels, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. At Tesco, we have also set ourselves the goal that no food that is safe for human consumption will be wasted from our operations. To help us achieve this by 2020 all our stores in Central Europe will be offering surplus food that’s safe to eat to food banks and charities.

The second step is transparency. In 2013, Tesco took the step of publishing its UK food waste data and we are exploring how we can do the same in our other markets. The numbers reveal that less than 1pc of our food is wasted in the UK. This probably makes us one of the most efficient retailers in the world, but we know there is more we need to do.

We also encourage more retailers and food businesses to share their data.  To do this, we need a clear, consistent measurement methodology. Last year the Champions 12.3 worked to help establish this through the Food Loss and Waste Protocol. Four years ago, Tesco set out our own methodology but we did this in isolation. So we have engaged the food industry and industry bodies to work together on a common framework that is in line with the protocol.

If we can find common ground, and build on the support expressed by the Consumer Goods Forum, we will change the approach we have at Tesco to adopt the new methodology. The point is that what we need is a clear, category specific measure of food waste, rather than the aggregated data currently provided by the retail industry.

The third step is innovation. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, so what needs to be done will vary. In developing countries, tackling food losses during production, handling and storage is critically important. In developed countries and urban areas, steps to prevent food waste in retail operations, restaurants and the home can have the greatest impact.

In our case at Tesco, a key innovation has been developing our partnerships with food banks to make sure that any surplus food that’s safe to eat from our stores is shared with food charities to help feed people in need.  We’ve already rolled the partnership out to over 400 stores across Central Europe and since 2013 we have donated enough edible food to provide over 14.5 million meals.

No matter what business we work in, the key thing is to see the scale of the challenge and take action. This report shows there’s no longer any social, environmental or economic reason not to act. Even if the moral imperative doesn’t move us, the clear business case for reducing food waste should persuade every CEO.

Keywords Tesco, food