Food…Use It or Lose It?

by Sandy Bonnington

Each year 7 million tonnes of food and drink are thrown away in households around the UK with over half of this being perfectly edible (Love Food Hate Waste, 2016). Food waste is an issue that has been ignored for too¡ long and is only finally getting the attention of the public and policymakers that it deserves. Food waste is not just a problem in the UK; it is a global issue, which has far reaching implications and effects. The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) published a report in 2013 stating that an estimated 30% – 50% (or 1.2 – 2 billion tonnes) of all food produced around the globe is wasted due to poor processing practices and market and consumer wastage.

France made headlines last year when it passed legislation to ban supermarkets from destroying or throwing away unsold food or face a hefty fine or prison sentence (Chrisafis, 2015). The move from the French government will see supermarkets now having to give food to charities or for animal feed after mounting pressure from groups around France (Chrisafis, 2015). Tesco recently announced that it will follow suit by giving away all its unsold food to UK charities in partnership with FareShare in a plan to eliminate food waste by the end of 2017 (Mortimer, 2016). For many large supermarkets, food waste is an issue filled with conflict and tension as it interrupts the desire to increase sales and profit, but at the same time the issue of morality and ethical business arises. This conflict of interests may mean some larger organisations are slower to adapt to such measures like Tesco have, however it also creates a space for supermarkets to change their public image by adopting more ethical, environmentally-friendly and sustainable business practices.

UK groups like FareShare, WRAP and The Food Waste Collective have been campaigning for an end to this food waste epidemic by trying to inform, engage and gain support from the public on this issue. Progress is being made to change legislation surrounding food waste, which is a positive step towards more sustainable consumption on a mass scale. However, while it is crucial to get the large corporations to be held accountable and change their practices, the majority of food waste originates at home. Modern consumer culture has been entwined with behaviours of waste due to poor consumer understandings of ‘best before’ dates, and market strategies to shift large quantities of food at low prices, both of which increase the likelihood of food waste (IMechE, 2013).

However, as Evans (2011) argues, we need to be quick not to simply individualise and reduce the blame onto consumers and instead look more deeply at the complex and conflicting requirements of everyday living which affect consumption and negotiations within the household.   People are constantly facing obstacles in their day-to-day lives which affect the way they shop which may lead to forms of food waste (Evans, 2011). For many people, food waste isn’t about the food: it’s about juggling the demands of everyday life which may inadvertently led to practices of food waste. An ethnographic approach could provide a much needed insight into household consumption and waste in order to better understand these complex, subjective and fluid processes which occur any different forms of households.

In order to create an atmosphere for sustainable consumption, a sense of responsibility must be placed on the customer as well as the other actors in the consumption chain, including large corporations. The position and duty of the state must not be forgotten within such debates either. The state has the power to create more progressive, positive and sustainable legislation which can help create a domino effect along the consumption chain, from big business to individual households, like in the French case. By taking an anthropological approach and looking at food waste through the lens of the individual household, the complex and specific causes of food waste can begin to emerge which will help to create a better understanding of how it can be tackled throughout the chain of consumption.

Sandy Bonnington is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.


Chrisafis, A. (2015) “France to force big supermarkets to give unsold food to charities.” The Guardian [online] 22nd May 2016.

Evans, D. (2011) “Blaming the consumer – once again: the social and material contexts of everyday food waste practices in some English households.” Critical Public Health, 21 (4): 429-440.

IMechE (2013) Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. London: Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Love Food Hate Waste (2016) “The Facts about Food Waste.”

Mortimer, C. (2016) “Tesco to give all unsold food to charity after finalising deal.”The Independent [online] 11th March 2016.

Title image: Courtesy


  1. Thank you Richard, I will check out those studies and your question “what would happen to the food economy if we did not waste 40% of potential food” is a very stimulating one which I will think about more. I also wonder what would happen to the economy in general if we did not waste 40% of potential wood as well as the food economy? I think your point on the moral discourse of waste is a very interesting and relevant one which is often reduced to simplistic notions like you suggest, when this process, as we know, is much more complex!

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  2. It is exciting to hear about these new initiatives in cutting waste in the food chain. I would just like to call attention to the work of the Tucson garbage project back in the 1980s, which made important anthropological points about the causes of waste. One of their findings was that when beef prices went up because of a shortage, household waste of beef also went up. They also found that poor people produced more waste than the middle class because they had to buy so many products in small sized packages; Germany is a good example of an approach to reducing waste by regulating packaging. Packaging has a very strong cultural component; think about the way the Japanese tend to put packages inside of packages inside of packages in so many food specialty products.
    I also believe we need to take a closer look at the moral discourse of waste, and anthropological topic with the venerable history. A lot of what I read about waste these days seems to assume that all forms of waste are morally repugnant, bad or evil. George Bataille had some interesting things to say about that, arguing that conspicuous waste is the fundamental purpose of consumer culture. I also ask my students to think about what would happen to the food economy if we did not waste 40% of potential food.

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