To Waste Food Is Human, But We Can Stop

We can outsmart ourselves for the betterment of our health and society.
07/21/2016 08:24 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2016
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

When I began researching the problem of food waste, I was curious to understand some of the more subtle yet powerful drivers of this aspect of human behavior. As I mentioned in my previous blog, wasting food is rarely a conscious, intentional act. There are myriad psychological factors at work, such as cognitive biases and heuristics, that push us ever so slightly in the direction of buying more food than we use. But the behavior goes even deeper, to our evolutionary roots and our tendencies as human beings.

Evolutionary Theory: Waste Is In Our Roots

Evolutionary theories explain acquisition errors involved in squander and waste in two ways: First, highly unpredictable food supplies and single, large food sources (such as large animals) lend themselves to over-acquisition. By over-acquiring individuals can guard against starvation – assuming that they have some means of storing the food they collect so that it will last over time. On this thinking, modern humans may also over-acquire and subsequently create food waste because evolutionary patterns remind them that this may, in fact, be their last opportunity to get food, and it should be maximized.

Second, over-acquiring allows one to share with others: if one has extra unspoiled food, they would be motivated via reciprocal altruism or kin selection to share with others. If one’s personal ability to acquire were reduced at a later time, they would then anticipate that others would return the favor, sharing their excess with them.

Recognizing the evolutionary roots of our over-acquisitive tendencies offers two possible remedies for the high levels of squander and waste today. First, if evolutionary impulses drive us to over-acquire, they should be correctable through salient reminders that in most parts of the Western world, food supplies are stable and frequently-accessed. Reminding people that they shop, on average, twice a week, may reduce their likelihood to stock up on perishable supplies. Using loyalty program data, such messages could be sent via text messages or targeted ads.

Second, the sharing that likely increased the utility that could be extracted from a given food supply could become part of our modern lives. For example, the website www.foodshare.org encourages people to invite others to share meals with them. While such programs are often described a serving a relational and experiential purpose, such resource pooling programs could also help reduce waste by matching up individuals with excess food with those who have salient demand.

Personality Theory: Waste Is In Our Traits

Past theory in consumers’ trait materialism can also help explain the acquisition-based drivers of waste. Rather than acquiring large amounts for survival purposes, materialist consumers will acquire in order to bolster their internal sense of worth or signal their value, wealth or power to others, even when they know that they do not actually need the good in question. Materialism theory would thus argue that over-acquisition of food, as with any other product, might substitute for connections to more transcendent means of self-valuation. Further, having the means to waste food may itself be used as a signal of wealth and power as in the notion of conspicuous waste. However, since one’s food consumption may be fairly stable relative to one’s acquisition, using food purchasing as a means toward materialistic ends is likely to lead to substantial quantities of squander and waste. Indeed, researchers have argued that the materialism in capitalist societies is a primary cause of environmental damage. Simply put, not wasting is not important to all people.

Interestingly, however, work in materialism also suggests that this personality trait may have a silver lining with regard to waste: if the environment is framed as a valued object, it can become of central concern to highly-materialist consumers. Given this finding, it may be that messages that frame food waste as a threat to treasured environmental spaces (beloved national parks, for example) may prompt behavioral change despite high levels of materialism.

Social Norms, Theories And Labels: Waste Is In Our Culture

Food acquisition, consumption and disposal can all be shaped by social norms in ways that increase waste and squander.

Lay theories may explain varying levels of squander and waste. These theories could relate to social norms (i.e., “People who eat everything on their plate are poor,” “Lots of people buy food and throw it out before they have time to eat it,”) or to concrete information (i.e., “Food is no longer safe to eat after its sell-by date.”) Given that consumers often lack objective information about people around them and know little about food safety, they are likely to engage these beliefs in order to make decisions. Past research suggests that lay theories may be generated internally, through personal experience and self-observation or externally, from environmental cues. As such, it may be possible that marketers or policymakers could engage with lay beliefs directly, using high-visibility cues to correct misinterpretations. 

Many of these lay theories are probably learned in families. For example, a given family may typically buy the largest possible packages of food, because doing so reduces unit cost and effectively feeds the family. As described by family systems theory, the purchase of large quantities thus offers a strategy for meeting the needs of the family members as well as the needs of the family as a whole. However, when family members enter different developmental phases and shop independently for themselves, the “large is a better value” lay theory may be misapplied, leading them to buy large packages – which is no longer economical, since portions of those products will not be consumed in a smaller household. As such, understanding family systems and the norms they create may also be important in reducing waste.

Interestingly, social norm information may be exacerbating waste problems, because waste and squander are so common in Western countries. Thus, sharing social norm information may serve to normalize this behavior, reinforcing rather than reducing it. As such, social norm interventions would have to focus on the actual shaping of culturally-typical behaviors; a tall order for policymakers or marketers. To this end, the formation of small groups of individuals who are committed to reducing food waste and squander might provide seeds of social support and influence that provide proximal, more optimal norms.

At present, most groups dedicated to reducing food waste operate in business-to-business contexts, for example, the Boulder Food Rescue gathers produce and packaged foods from grocery stores and connects them to shelters and resource-poor communities. However, some initiatives are beginning to create small communities devoted to reducing waste, such as the “Love Food Hate Waste” program, which offers small-group cooking classes across the UK (England.lovefoodhatewaste.com). If such small-group experiences generate new norms for consumers, they may help reduce waste.

Categorization theory also suggests that waste and squander could be generated via societally-internalized labels for various types and quantities of food. The labels serve as categories, which provide guidance as to the actions, emotions and cognitions consumers will have about food. In the present context, ad-hoc categories related to food are likely to be strong determinants of its destiny. For example, if consumers have learned to categorize small remainders of food as “items for tomorrow’s lunch,” rather than as trash, they are less likely to throw out the food or allow it to sit until it spoils.Whats

Human beings come pre-loaded with instincts and traits, and wasting food may be one of them. But they are not deterministic. With a little awareness and the right strategies, we can outsmart ourselves for the betterment of our health and society.

This post is part of our “Reclaim” initiative, which showcases solutions to the issue of food waste and engages our readers to take action. You can find all the posts in this initiative, as well as feature pieces, investigative stories and video, here. Follow the initiative on Twitter at #Reclaim. And if you’d like to add your own thoughts to our series, sign up here for a HuffPost blog account.  

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