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Carbon Foodprint

Jun

03

Most people are now familiar with the need to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but what about their carbon foodprint? With one third of all food produced for human consumption lost or wasted - that’s about one billion tonnes every year - food waste is steadily gathering political momentum. The theme of this year’s United Nations World Environment Day (5th June) is dedicated to food waste, with a new campaign, called “Think. Eat. Save - Reduce your foodprint”, at its centre.

Ella Graham-Rowe sheds light on household food waste from a social psychological perspective. 

So what’s all the fuss about? Food waste is not just a waste of food and money; it is also a waste of energy, water, land and labour. When food is disposed of into landfill sites it creates chemicals and gases - most notably methane - which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Also given that millions of people around the world go undernourished while others throw food away, food waste also raises moral issues. And, as the world’s population continues to increase, natural resources diminish and the global temperatures rise, it seems clear that the problem of food waste needs to be addressed now.

But how? In medium and high income countries the biggest single contributor to food waste is the consumer, in other words you and me. Indeed in the UK more than half of the 7.2 tonnes of food that we throw away from our homes every year could have been consumed. We buy more food than we need and we cook more food than we need, but why?

Whilst working on a very different environmental research project at Sussex, I became aware of the fact that there was very little systematic food waste research that made use of the existing social psychology literature, in particular the behaviour change literature. I wanted to help bridge this gap, and I am now in my third year of a PhD (supervised by Donna Jessop and Paul Sparks) researching household food waste from a social psychological perspective.

An important initial first step to my research was to identify the main underlying factors that influenced people’s food waste behaviour. Therefore, I conducted an interview-based study with household food purchasers and providers asking them to discuss their household food behaviour. Findings revealed that people have a number of motivations or goals that could either impact negatively or positively on household food waste, and that these have the potential to conflict with each other. 

For example, the wish to avoid wasting money or good food may well be a strong motivation for most people much of the time, but this may be overshadowed by a desire to minimise inconvenience due to people’s often busy lives or the desire to be a ‘good provider’. Over-purchasing as a consequence of a desire to provide a variety of healthy foods for their family appeared to be especially relevant for parents. Behaviours that may reduce the chances of food going to waste (such as cooking in bulk) are viewed by some people as time consuming, whereas buying food in bulk can be seen as a way to save time in the future as it avoids extra trips to the shops. Also, throwing away food prematurely can be seen as a way to avoid the potential inconvenience of ill health. Most importantly the wish to avoid experiencing negative emotions (such as guilt, frustration, annoyance or regret) was found to underpin not only the motivations to minimise food waste but also the motivations to over-purchase food.

Having conducted this initial exploratory research I was keen to use some of the leading social psychological models to further explore this area and to systematically look at the inter-relationships between different beliefs, motivations and actual behaviour.

For my first theory based study I choose to utilise the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1991).This model has been widely used by psychologist to investigate many behaviours, but until now had not been applied to food waste. This theory details the determinants of an individual’s decision to behave in a certain way. The model states that intention to perform a specific behaviour is the most important predictor of behaviour.

The findings from my research supported the validity of this model as applied to food waste reduction behaviour. However, critically, what this model also revealed was that many people intended to reduce their household food waste behaviour but actually failed to do so. This is not that surprising, given the many conflicting motivations and goals people might have, which influence their household food waste behaviour.

The second major issue uncovered by my preliminary interview research was that of denial. Analysis of my qualitative study showed different types of denial of responsibility. Some people suggested that food waste was not a problem for the environment (as food breaks down) and therefore it was not worth reducing food waste. Others argued that food waste is not their fault, but rather the fault of the food industry and supermarkets, and therefore it is not their responsibility to change. And finally some people suggested that they were not prepared to reduce their food waste as they were already being environmentally friendly in other ways (e.g. recycling regularly), and so were therefore vindicated of any responsibility.

So why is it that some people waste food but deny responsibility, and how can food waste reduction campaigns overcome this barrier? This is the issue that I am addressing in my current research and I am now applying specific social psychological techniques that are thought to enable people to be more open to information detailing the negative consequences of certain behaviours. This is in an attempt to see if it is possible to overcome defensive responses - such as denial - in relation to household food waste behaviour. Preliminary findings are positive, but this research is still ongoing and I will update you in a follow-up blog.

Overall it seems clear that household food waste is a complex issue, with many potential psychological barriers to break down. In the meantime, for those people who are already motivated to reduce their food waste but need help or encouragement then campaigns, such as the “Think. Eat. Save - Reduce your foodprint”, are invaluable resources that offer facts, tips, ideas and techniques to encourage and inspire everyone to take action.

For more information, see Think, Eat, Save

 

References

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179–211.