Requiring shoppers to go to overstocked stores bakes waste into the U.S. food system. Could grocery stores migrate online the way video stores have?
Think about the last time you went into a grocery store and saw an empty table or shelf. Tough, right? That's because it virtually never happens in this country. American shoppers have become accustomed to finding whatever food item they want when they go to the grocery store—and plenty of it, too. That expectation, which U.S. shoppers have only really had for the last few decades, plays a big role in the country's growing food waste problem. According to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 40 percent of fresh food produced in the United States is wasted every year. That's more than 20 pounds of food wasted per person per month, all year long. Even worse? The majority of that food ends up not in food banks but in landfills, where it contributes 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
Of course, that's not all to do with the fact that stores overstock shelves—and wind up throwing rotted food away—in order to meet shopper expectations. "It adds up in every part of the supply chain," says Elliott Grant, founder and CTO of Yottamark, the company behind food traceability platform HarvestMark. "Some product is left on the farm, some is rejected at receiving, some is wasted at the stores. At every part of the chain a little is added to that pile."
However, Grant says the reason waste is endemic to the current American model of food consumption is largely to do with how we approach grocery shopping. "Americans expect to see abundance [at the grocery store]," he says. "U.S. retailers believe shoppers expect produce to be there whenever they want it. The idea of 'out of stock' is so anathema to U.S. shoppers that retailers would rather pay for food that they know they'll waste than risk having an empty table or shelf in the store."
Grant's company produced the HarvestMark platform a few years ago and have since helped suppliers throughout the country affix QR codes to their products, which shoppers can use to see where a food item came from and how long it was in transit. A longtime proponent of using technology to improve food systems, Grant predicts that online grocery shopping could and will reduce some of the food waste at grocery stores.
Online grocery shopping isn't a new idea: It was one of the ways in which the Internet was supposed to change our lives 10 years ago. Only it didn't. Grant says today the technology and the market are better prepared to make the transition from brick-and-mortar to online grocers. "Everyone is more ready now for online grocery shopping to really work," he says. "To some extent that's to do with the density of housing, which makes the system pencil out better for businesses, but also people are ready to buy their produce online."
In fact, many people already do, via FreshDirect on the east coast and Spud.com on the west coast. Grant says that in addition to helping to deal with food waste, transitioning from "real" to virtual grocery stores will ensure that shoppers get fresher produce. When they first began tracing foods from farm to store, Grant's team discovered that the average fresh food was getting to its spot on a grocery store shelf 12 days after it was harvested. That means it's only going to last a few days longer in your fridge, which in turn translates to more food waste.
Amazon could cut that [12-day journey] in half," Grant says. "They have a whole different perspective on the supply chain and aren’t encumbered by the same past that grocers are."
So are grocery stores this year's video stores? Are online grocers the Netflix of 2013? Grant says the transition isn't likely to happen quite that quickly. After all, people still like to handle produce to see if it's fresh. "I think you'll start to see the edges of the store—the produce, meat, and dairy—become the core of the grocery store and everything else will move online," he says. "Consumers may not want to risk letting milk sit outside all day while they're at work, but toilet paper and cereal are no problem."
As online grocers are better able to marry delivery times with customer schedules, though, and as consumers get more used to buying food online, that's likely to shift. If and when it does, we could start to see major reductions in food waste (and water and energy waste along with it).
In the meantime, organizations like the NRDC and the UK organization WRAP are working with consumers to better understand sell-by and consume-by dates, to get more comfortable with imperfect-looking produce and to do a better job of eating leftovers. It's not the impossible task it might seem. According to the NRDC's report, Americans today waste 50 percent more food than Americans did back in the 1970s. "This means there was once a time when we wasted far less, and we can get back there again," the report concludes.