Documentaries shown on the German television at the beginning of the 2010s brought the proportions of food waste to the viewers’ attention. A consumer movement emerged, and it has successfully reduced the amount of food waste at the annual level of around 4 million kilogrammes.
‘As a researcher of consumer behaviour, I and my colleagues became particularly interested in the fact that the consumer movement aiming at food waste reduction used exceptional means of exerting influence, and succeeded excellently’, says Assistant Professor in Marketing Henri Weijo, who has recently published an article on the topic together with his research team.
‘Traditionally, consumer movements have strived to achieve influence by using different pressure tactics, such as lobbying or protesting. This time, consumers took direct action’, Weijo continues.
The first step was dumpster diving, that is, collecting discarded food products from grocery stores’ bins, cleaning the products and using them for food. Earlier, dumpster diving was mainly done by homeless people or small groups of alternative thinkers, but the problem with food waste also inspired many well-off consumers to search for food in bins. As dumpster diving became more popular, the consumer movement activists started coordinating the dumpster diving operations and divided the food forward through digital channels. Some of the activists even taught dumpster diving and cooking at the university in order to recruit new members.
However, the potential of activism built around dumpster diving proved to be limited. Many consumers thought the use of discarded food was disgusting, and it caused a fear of being stigmatised. Dumpster diving also attracted opposition, and, for example, the retail trade regarded it as theft. Other means were therefore needed to reduce food waste.
Cooperation with the retail trade bore fruit
Permanent practices accepted by the different parties were found when the consumer movement began to develop cooperation with the retailers. The activists created new types of distribution networks, where volunteers divided food to any interested parties instead of throwing it away. Together with the retailers, the activists also developed new types of distribution points and marking policies inside the stores. Easy availability of surplus food was important for success.
‘A significant reduction in food waste took place only after the consumers could find the surplus food easily and with clear markings in the retail store and outside. Consumers regard the implementation of values related to sustainable development and the reduction of food waste as very important, but the implementation of these values in everyday life is often viewed as difficult or complex‘, Weijo says.
Successful communication was also crucially important. The activists were reluctant to define the cooperation as a mere charity, in order to make as many consumers as possible interested in food waste. When recruiting traders to take part in the cooperation, the activists also underlined the financial savings and the benefits brought to the store’s reputation by sustainable development.
School of Business, Department of Marketing
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Gollnhofer JF, Weijo HA, Schouten JW. Consumer Movements and Value Regimes: Fighting Food Waste in Germany by Building Alternative Object Pathways. Journal of Consumer Research. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucz004