Reducing food waste is an economic no-brainer and a coalition of business leaders aren’t wasting time cashing in on the US $685 billion dollar market.

When big players in the food industry like Walmart, Nestlé, Unilever, Barilla, Tesco, Carrefour, Kellogg’s, and the like are committed to reducing food waste within their operations, you know something’s up.

While governments around the globe have been slow to act, these businesses are currently spearheading the fight against food waste. Not only are they integrating ambitious food waste reduction efforts into their business strategies but they are also endeavoring to halve food waste five years earlier than the 2030 Agenda – and IKEA, is aiming to do it by 2020.

Despite ambitions of doing good, these companies are not taking action solely for the sake of the environment, they realize the clear-cut business case for reducing food waste.

Food loss and waste squander water, energy, land, labor, and capital – all immensely valuable resources. Further, a series of studies show a positive return on investment when actions are taken to limit food waste. A review of 1,200 business sites across 700 companies in 17 countries found that “nearly every site evaluated achieved a positive return, with half seeing a 14-fold or greater return on investment”. The review was conducted by the Champions 12.3 coalition, an alliance of leaders from governments, businesses, international organizations, research institutions, farmer groups, and civil society, dedicated to mobilizing action, and accelerating progress towards achieving SDG Target 12.3 by 2030: cutting per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level in half, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses).

The business case: A no-brainer

One-third of all food produced in the world goes uneaten. This leads to tremendous social, environmental, and economic consequences. Food loss and waste thus accounts for about US 1.2 trillion in financial losses. The review done by Champions 12.3 points to the unmistakable economic upsides of investing in food waste reduction. This is supported by a sector-specific analysis of food waste reduction efforts in hotels, that found that the average return on investment was a staggering 600%.

All of these analyses and numbers reveal – from a purely economic standpoint – that reducing food waste is a no-brainer.

“There is clearly a business case for corporations to reduce food waste in their operations, since this waste is a cost that incurs to them. It is fantastic that so many global players have now seized this case to make significant inroads in reducing their waste,” says Tristram Stuart, a board member of Champions 12.3. Stuart is a renowned leader in the combat against food waste, founder of the charity Feedback, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, and founder of Toast Ale, a beer company that upcycles surplus bread into tasty brews.

The Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s flagship report Better Business, Better World, estimates that food loss and waste reduction programs represent a massive economic prize worth US $685 billion – a figure that balloons to a staggering US $1.2 trillion when externalities are priced in.

All of these analyses and numbers reveal – from a purely economic standpoint – that reducing food waste is a no-brainer.

Collaborative action is needed

Tapping into the environmental and economic potential of battling food waste cannot be achieved by one sole actor or frontrunning business leader. On the contrary, it demands partnerships and collaborations between governments, sectors, companies, institutions, and individuals.

Today, collaboration is thus also a growing trend. Champions 12.3 is one of the more prominent and highly visible coalitions trying to create partnerships and foster collaborative leadership, but throughout the globe, numerous coalitions are working together to raise awareness, engage stakeholders, and reform business practices to reduce food waste.

Another vital factor for tapping the potential of food waste reduction is the ability to measure what, how much, where, and why, edible and inedible foodstuffs are wasted.

One example is the Food Waste Resolution of The Consumer Goods Forum which engages members to commit to slash food waste by 50% by 2025. Ignacio Gavilan, Director of Environmental Sustainability, at The Consumer Goods Forum explains that collaboration and knowledge is vital: “What we try to emphasise, as the only organization that brings consumer goods retailers and manufacturers together, is the knowledge and best-practice sharing. We are working with the leaders to help bring others up to speed.”  

Measure to manage

Besides strong partnerships and coalitions, another vital factor for tapping the potential of food waste reduction is the ability to measure what, how much, where, and why, edible and inedible foodstuffs are wasted.

Also in this area, new initiatives and tools have been introduced. One significant achievement is the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (or FLW Standard) developed by the Food Loss and Waste Protocol in 2016. This is the first set of global definitions and guidelines ever created for food waste management.

Another example is The Food Waste Atlas, just recently launched by WRAP, and World Resources Institute, with financial support from the Walmart Foundation. It is the world’s first ever global depository for food loss and waste data which allows government bodies and companies to get insights into existing food loss and waste inventory. Transparent reporting on food waste reduction methods and progress can inspire others to follow suit and glean best practices from others in the industry.

Governments are slowly awakening

Another critical factor in limiting food waste is ensuring the right regulatory framework. But when it comes to governments putting food waste on top of the agenda, we still have a ways to go with food waste.

According to Champions 12.3’s most recent annual report, assessing global progress towards achieving SDG 12.3 which proposes a road map and complimentary series of milestones necessary to halve food waste, companies are still leading the way in the measurement of food loss and waste. Countries representing just 14% of the global population are taking action to reduce food loss and waste, compared to 20% of the world’s largest companies that have established food waste reduction programs.

But small steps are being taken from some governments. In May 2018, the EU made an amendment to the Waste Framework Amendment, stating that member states should take measures to promote prevention and reduction of food waste in line with the 2030 Agenda, citing a food waste reduction target of 30% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

Other regions and nations around the globe have also taken new steps to cut food waste. For example, in August 2018, African Union Commission launched the Continental Post Harvest Management Strategy to support the realisation of the Malabo Declaration, which strives to halve food loss across the continent by 2025. And last year, Australia both published a National Food Waste Strategy, which provides a supporting framework to achieve SDG Target 12.3, and backed it with a commitment of US $1.37 million over two years.