Waste not want not

Date : 24 November 2011
Waste not Want not

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote to the editor of the Lloyd’s Evening Post on 9 December 1772 with an analysis of the austerity affecting Britain at the time.

The various causes of hardship he listed, such as unemployment, inflation, increased taxes and national debt, have an air of familiarity about them in today's difficult economic times. Interestingly, however, he also noted how a wasteful attitude to food was compounding the situation.

He wrote: “Only look into the kitchens of the great, the nobility, and gentry, almost without exception...and when you have observed the amazing waste which is made there, you will no longer wonder at the scarcity”

It was in another letter, written to a friend in the same year, that he coined the phrase “He will waste nothing; but he must want nothing.”

waste not want notIt's not entirely clear whether Wesley's words were the original source of the famous proverb 'waste not, want not.' But in any case this saying has since slipped into common usage, and has appeared on a variety of artifacts across the years, including 19th century bread plates, 20th century war posters and even 21st century t-shirts and mugs.

Most British shoppers probably first heard those words uttered by their mother or grandmother, perhaps as a legacy of the 14 years of rationing introduced in 1940 by the then Minister for Food, Lord Woolton. In any case, with the economy firmly in the doldrums, 'waste not, want not'  has today, once again, taken root as a mantra of many British shoppers.


Focused on food waste

In ShopperTrack research published by IGD in May 2011, half of the British grocery shoppers questioned (50%) said they were doing more to reduce the amount of food they wasted. Alongside this, many were also more focused on buying only what they needed, planning meals better and using up leftovers.

Reducing food waste hits something of a sweet spot with shoppers, since it helps them save money while satisfying some of their ethical concerns. It has become one of the savvy shopping strategies employed by consumers during this modern-day period of austerity.

Nevertheless, it appears there is still scope for more to be done on reducing food waste. In the IGD ShopperTrack survey, British shoppers estimated that on average they threw away just over a tenth of the food that they bought (11%). Overall consumer behaviour was, however, very varied, with a fifth of respondents estimating their waste levels to be 20% or more. Levels of waste were particularly high among parents of children aged under five and younger shoppers.

If anything, however, shoppers appear to be underestimating the amount of food they throw away. A November 2009 report by waste-reduction organisation WRAP, titled 'Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK', calculated the real average level of avoidable food waste to be 16% of all food purchased.

With IGD ShopperTrack research from October 2011 showing that half of shoppers (52%) expect to become worse off financially in the future, it is fair to say that reducing food waste will remain a high priority for them.

Causes of food waste

According to WRAP, fresh produce, bakery products and leftover meals are the key things that make up the proportion of food waste deemed avoidable, as illustrated in the chart below. Beverage and dairy products also contribute significantly.

The amount of food waste by category

The amount of food waste by category

Source: WRAP


One shopper interviewed by IGD told us:
"Foods that are wasted tend to be overripe and bruised fruit, vegetables and peelings, dinner scraps and occasionally a few yogurts."

Simply failing to consume products is the key driver of food waste. As illustrated in the chart below, the most common reasons for throwing food away are either that it has gone beyond its use-by date, or that despite the shopper trying to do the right thing by keeping leftovers, the leftovers have subsequently not been eaten.

Another shopper told us: "I often package up the leftovers into little boxes to take to work for lunch, but sometimes I’m too late and have to put them in the bin."

Reasons why shoppers say they waste food

Reasons why shoppers say they waste food

Source: IGD What Shoppers Want, October 2011, Base: 1,000 main shoppers

Cooking, preparing or serving too much food is also a common cause of waste, according to shoppers.

Industry initiatives

Many manufacturers and retailers are responding to the problem of food waste with targeted initiatives and new product development. One example is Morrisons’ ‘Great Taste Less Waste’ campaign, which is designed to provided practical storage advice and convenient recipe ideas that make the most of leftovers. Another is Heinz's Beanz Fridge Packs, which have provided shoppers with a new packaging format specifically designed to help them cut waste.

food waste initiatives

Becoming shoppers’ food waste ally

But there is still much more that companies can do to help shoppers reduce their food waste. When questioned, shoppers prioritised a number of ways in which they wanted help, as highlighted in the chart below.

How shoppers want help reducing food waste

How shoppers want to help reducing food waste

Source: IGD Environmental Sustainability, June 2011. Arrows denote significant changes since 2009

Successfully encouraging consumers to reduce the amount of food they throw away might, of course, impact negatively on sales volumes. However, companies that help people minimise waste could also strengthen their brand appeal by meeting the key shopper needs of saving money, maintaining quality and becoming more ethical. To this end, companies may look to:

  • Continue reviewing the promotional mix
  • Promote the versatility of products as recipe ingredients
  • Investigate re-sealable options and other packaging innovations that prolong shelf-life
  • Ensure packs provide clear and practical advice on storage, freezing, portion size and usage

So, in the words of another old saying, during an extended period of low economic growth, ‘fortune may favour the brave’.


Image Sources

  1. V&A museum, by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, c1850
  2. Canada Food Board, World War I poster, c1914-1918
  3. www.awardmedals.com, November 2011
Shopper Insight