Mike Coupe: Food Waste Down 9.4% Year on Year- But There's Still Lots to Do

Mike Coupe

"For there to be true progress in combating food waste, there has to be a spirit of transparency and collaboration."

Our acheivements to date:

  • Food waste to energy down 9.4% year-on-year
  • More than 1,000 charity partnerships now in place, linked with 60% of our stores
  • First grocery retailer to achieve zero operational waste to landfill in 2013
  • Removal of multi-buys from all food products achieved in 2016 reducing waste
  • Invested £1 million in Swadlincote as part of our Waste less, Save more programme to help households reduce waste at home
  • Continued focus on using  ‘wonky’ fruit and veg  across our product ranges including in juices and soups 

A global issue

Food retailers are an important part of the chain, and, as one of the biggest grocery retailers in the UK, we want to make a radical difference – helping to bring down the overall levels of food waste generated in this country.

But how does food surplus and food waste occur in the first place? From start to finish the journey from farm to fork is a multifaceted, global collective of assorted businesses that involve many processes and people: producers / suppliers, manufacturers and food processing, food retailers and outlets, ending with customers. Food outlets – supermarkets, restaurants, take-aways and the hospitality industries – represent the middle part of the journey – and we believe we are uniquely placed to improve both ends of the food supply chain by continuing to find new ways to work with our farmers and suppliers as well as helping households minimise their own food waste. 

We’re reporting our food surplus and food waste figures because we know that for there to be true progress in combating this issue, there has to be a spirit of transparency and collaboration. And in working in this way, and by working together across the chain, we can collectively have a greater impact.

What we’re doing across our operations

Let’s start by looking at our own operations. Over the last year we have reduced total levels of unsold food. We’ve done this through a number of measures. By sourcing more of our produce direct from growers and farmers, thereby speeding up the farm-to-fork process and reducing the opportunity for food to be wasted. Using improvements in technology we’re also working to better predict which seasonal products are likely to be popular in a given week. This is particularly important given the unpredictable nature of the British climate!  Our progress in this areas has resulted in significantly less surplus from seasonal products like burgers, sausages, salads and soft fruit.

We’re also managing the supply to stores in a more efficient way – using sophisticated analytics to tailor stock levels to demand for every store. New packaging means food lasts longer; our vacuum-packed meat and fish has been a real success, and we’re looking to extend that further. We’ve also moved away from multi-buys – helping customers waste less at home and enabling us to better forecast demand which then reduces peaks and troughs for our farmers.

Another example is the use of ‘wonky’ fruit and veg in our three own brand ranges: basics, by Sainsbury’s and Taste the Difference, where we incorporate it into our meals, soups and other products where appropriate. If a crop meets the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) marketing standards which sets the grading guidelines there is a place for it in our supply chain. A great example of us using ‘wonky veg’ in a new and innovative way is our ‘boodles’ – which are butternut squash noodles from products that would otherwise not meet our standards to be sold as whole.  We have been doing this for several years, and will continue to look for new ways, right across the value chain, to improve.  

Of the declining amount of food that is unsold, we are putting more than ever before to good use via donations to charities who provide food for those in need. Our Food Donation Partnerships now stand at over 1,000. We convert some of our unsold food (that does not contain animal by-products) into animal feed and, through operational efficiencies and training, the amount has stayed broadly the same annually – now standing at 8,922 tonnes.

Food that we can’t donate or turn into animal feed (such as food beyond its use-by-date) is turned into energy via anaerobic digestion (AD). This is referred to as ‘food waste’ – and over the last year we’ve reduced this by a further 9.4%. We’re heading in the right direction but there’s still a lot more to do.

Food waste at home

As we look beyond our stores, households account for 50% of all food that’s thrown away in the UK – each year amounting to 7 million tonnes. And what’s more – over half of it is edible. We know that customers care about this issue, which is why, as part of our work in this area, we’re helping households find easier ways to reduce their own food waste – saving money and boosting disposable income as a result. We’ve invested £10 million over the next five years through Waste less, Save more, and are currently trialling innovations in our test town – Swadlincote in Derbyshire. We’ll be rolling out more of our learnings across stores and in our communities in the months ahead. 

What’s next? We need to keep improving…

Building on the work we’ve been doing – we want to go much further as we strive towards, and beyond, the Courtauld Commitment – a food-chain-wide pledge to reduce total food and drink waste in the UK by 20% by 2025.

Our partnership with FareShare, whom we co-founded in 2004 alongside homeless charity Crisis, continues to receive food surplus from our depots as well as from an increasing number of suppliers. And after achieving zero operational waste to landfill across our stores, depots and offices in 2013, we want to continue to reduce the amount of food waste that is turned into energy by continuing to improve operational efficiencies and innovate. Our Cannock store was the first retail outlet to come off the national grid, powered by food waste alone – and we hope to take more stores off the grid in the future.

Although some level of food waste is inevitable, our priorities are to be open and clear about the journey of food waste reduction, to try new approaches and share our learnings by continuing to improve and innovate across our operations, and to work in partnership with others to make a difference. What this complex issue needs is collaborative action. We call on more companies to sign up to the Courtauld Commitment 2025 – and for us all to work ever more closely to have the impact that we all want to see.

For full details of our food surplus and food waste numbers, please click here.