Prompting, nudging and facilitating less food waste

Every year in the UK, we throw away almost 20% of the food we buy, which contributes to the even scarier estimate from the IME that between 30% and 50% of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted.

We also tend underestimate the environmental impact of this waste. For example, we imagine that our overtly manufactured packaging is far more damaging than food and drink. In fact, food waste generates 15 times more emissions than packaging.

Food waste is one of the major issues that We Are What We Do will be focusing on in 2013 and this is starting out with a simple project in partnership with WRAP that aims to get some good data out there about the relationship between food waste and packaging.

We Are What We Do don’t usually do much in the way of communications about issues and behaviours – its normally all buried into a product or service – but this is a good example of needing to provide some context for stakeholders and influencers before the work goes into the next stage. At the moment, packaging is regarded as the outright baddie, which prevents lots of good ideas from being taken up, and information like this can help undermine this misunderstanding.

Check out the infographic we’ve put together, which lays this picture out pretty clearly, we think.

Food waste is perfectly placed for new approaches to behaviour change.

Most food waste stems from habits that are built, almost as defaults, into the way that our experiences of buying, using and throwing away food are designed – from the the way that products are sold through to the lay-out and facilities in our kitchens.

These defaults are informed by a wider lack of concern about food waste and there are very few incentives or disincentives in place at producer, grocer or consumer level. That consensus is very difficult to change at a societal level, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t bypass it completely and design the behavioural landscape better.

Even if the food we’ve bought is cheap enough (in 1957 food was over one third of the household budget, today it is under one fifth) that the waste hasn’t substantially affected our pockets (although that is less and less true at the moment), the process of sifting through the fridge on bin night and chucking out untouched bags of salad or scraping away unfinished bowls of cooked food after dinner represent genuine moments of frustration for all of us.

This frustration isn’t sharp enough to make us change all of those habits and decisions that get us to the same points every week. Neither is this negative emotion long lived, as the uneasiness of throwing away uneaten food is quickly replaced by the satisfaction of a cleaned out fridge or a washed up plate. Moreover, we’re not great at adding up the aggregate impacts of this waste, even those that affect us directly, like the money and time we’ve invested to get the food that far.

This is where the limited role of environmental awareness campaigns becomes clear. They pretend that amongst those moments of everyday, mostly automatic decision-making, concern for climate change will act as a habit breaker. Even when awareness is high, translation into sustained behaviour change tends to be low, particularly in wholly private spaces like the kitchen.

More interventions in these kinds of behavioural environments should be based on subconscious prompts, nudges and devices that establish defaults or facilitate new automatic decision making, rather than driving based broad awareness.

And, for these different kinds of interventions, the moments of frustration we all feel are something to work with.

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