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Research: The Psychological Factors of Household Food Waste

MIA BIRAU, Post-doc au département Marketing  Doctorate of Philosophy, Grenoble Ecole de Mangement
Published on
18 October 2016

More than 800 million people worldwide are undernourished. And despite this, we waste a third of our global food supply every year. Despite the development of many good practices to reduce household waste, food is often squander unintentionally. In response, the authors of this latest study explored the psychological factors that influence our food waste habits.

This article from Mia Birau, is the subject of the 29th  GEM LAB Executive Summaries.

From the article

The Squander Sequence: Understanding Food Waste at Each Stage of the Consumer Decision Making Process
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
Lauren Block, Punam Keller, Beth Vallen, Sara Williamson, Mia Birau, Amir Grinstein, Kelly Haws, Monica LaBarge, Cait Lamberton, Elizabeth Moore, Emily Moscato, Rebecca Walker Reczek, Andrea Tangari

In developing countries, transportation and storage are the primary causes of food waste. However, in developed countries, consumer behavior is the primary cause. As a result, it is essential to understand the psychological factors that influence the squandering of food. The researchers explored every phase of the squander sequence, which refers to a food's path from before we purchase goods to after we finish our meals.

The need for excess

Before purchasing goods, we tend to prefer seeing an abundance of aesthetically pleasing products. A large choice of products satisfies our curiosity. However, this often leads to the overstocking of food and the rejection of imperfect products.

[...] we tend to prefer seeing an abundance of aesthetically pleasing products [...] this often leads to the overstocking of food and the rejection of imperfect products.

Once we move on to make our purchases, we tend to value the size of portions as a means of confirming our quality of life. Whether it is to anticipate the future and be generous, or fill up our freezer and cupboards, a variety of reasons lead us to buy excess food.

Preparing food: a wasteful approach

Consumers tend to chose which food to prepare based on what they purchased most recently or what has better expiration dates. As a result, a healthy salad bought last week for dietary reasons may end up left to rot while we eat last night's pizza instead. Four yogurt flavors bought because we wanted something new end up looking less appealing once it is time for dessert.

Composting leads to more waste?

And what to do with leftovers? An unfinished piece of bread, some left over vegetables or pasta? Simply put in the compost. The researchers highlight that well-intentioned consumers who compost might actually end up wasting more because composting can reduce the level of guilt perceived by throwing away food.

In addition, other factors can contribute to waste at the end of the meal. For example, we tend to prepare excess food during holidays or we often forgo the use of Tupperware to store excess food when we have guests over for dinner.

By drawing attention to our unintentional food squandering, policy makers and organizations can help reduce waste. Some interesting examples of actions currently implemented to improve the situation include efforts by associations to enable the donation of unsold food, campaigns by supermarkets to highlight the value of imperfect fruits and vegetables, and efforts to educate the public on the real meaning of expiration dates, which do not always translate to health risks.

Key Points

  • Psychological factors that are in part unconscious lead western consumers to waste important quantities of food.
  • These factors encourage us to buy too many products that end up not being used at meal times.
  • Understanding these psychological factors can enable organizations and public authorities to implement policies and campaigns to reduce food waste.

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