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Designing Out Food Waste

Designing Out Food Waste

While the war on plastic rages, another pressing sustainability challenge lurks in our homes: food waste.

We’ve all done it: surveyed the kitchen for ingredients to make a meal, only to find a bag of lettuce wilting in the salad drawer, a block of cheese drying out after not being wrapped properly, or the last few slices of bread growing an intriguing mold bloom. We bin it and move on, grumbling about the odor or vowing to plan better next time. But it’s hardly a crime, right?

Allow me to hit you with some compelling facts about this seemingly innocuous subject:

In my book, that is a crime against people, planet, and profit.

It’s not just me, though. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals recognizes the problem, and has committed to halving food loss and waste by 2030[1] . Meanwhile, the recently launched EU Farm to Fork Strategy[2] identifies halving food waste as a key objective in Europe

This is where design thinking comes in. If we put the lens of design over the challenge, there is a brilliant opportunity for brands to help people reduce food waste and save them money. Strategic design executions that put people at the center of experiences are key to creating emotional connections that will help shift consumer habits and drive lasting change.

Galvanized by COVID-19, we are now shopping less often – but when we do shop, we are buying more and seeking value and quality brand experiences. Buying food in bulk might appear to present better value, but if we cannot manage the food properly when we get it home, there’s a greater risk of food waste and that perceived value is lost. With this in mind, the challenges and opportunities for designing out food waste vary by category.

All Chilled Out

The fresh and chilled aisles are filled with inspiring solutions that channel the latest food trends, aiming to fit with our busy lifestyles. But these are the aisles where copious amounts of food waste occur. Design innovation is happening here, such as moving to more sustainable materials and formats, but clear advice on storage to prolong freshness is vital. Let’s elevate this messaging on storage suggestions by using a brand’s tone of voice, and by placing it where people really notice it - whether that‘s on-pack, through digital campaigns, or both. For example, did you know that you can freeze hard cheese? If so, would you know to grate it first? Nope, me neither.

Frozen Assets

Frozen foods offer value, convenience, and a level of functionality that clearly reduces the risk of food waste.  During periods of Europe’s COVID-19 lockdown, when shopping and access to food has been limited, our freezers allowed us to both stock up and to freeze precious leftovers. Let’s bring more of the retail theatre that prevails in the chilled category to the frozen aisle, celebrating the benefits and inviting more people to the category:

  • Premium graphic branding with beautifully art-directed food imagery or illustrations to tell stories of provenance and quality.
  • Brand-led 3D design of sustainable materials, smart portioning formats, and helpful features like reseal devices.
  • Wider brand touchpoints that promote the benefits of the category – namely, controlled freshness at the point you need it, rather than freshness depleting from the point of purchase onwards.

Cupboard Love

Not everyone has the luxury of a generous fridge or freezer, though. Tinned foods can lack the excitement of the fresh and chilled category, but when it comes to food waste, their long shelf-life and affordability makes them food heroes. The trouble is, we often buy tins as potential ingredients for recipes or quick meal solutions, then stack them away in the cupboard - like insurance policies. Months later we’ll inspect the labels, see the “best before” date has passed, and bin them. But it doesn’t have to be like this! Unilever - amongst others - are ditching “best before” in favor of the more considerate “Often good after” message as part of a collaboration with food waste startup Too Good To Go, which found that 53 percent of Europeans don’t know the difference between “best before” and “use by.” This might seem like a minor thing, but the confusion leads to major – and unnecessary – food waste. The job of design in this category?  

  • Make mundane mandatories mean more.
  • Transform cans to look like works of art so we no longer relegate them to the depths of our cupboards, and instead proudly display them. Giving our tinned food more visibility in the home will help it become front of mind for use.
  • Use campaigns and social media platforms not just to sell, but to inspire people with serving suggestions and recipe ideas.

Tackling food waste will help to tackle climate change, but we all need to do more, and we need to do it quicker. The call is out there for governments to prioritize the issue, for businesses to get involved, and for us all to do our bit within our own homes. Brands need to make reducing food waste easy, accessible and rewarding for people – and design is the golden thread that can accomplish this.

Helen Hughes

Sustainability Director

Design Bridge

Helen.Hughes@designbridge.com


[1] http://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/indicators/1231/en/

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/food/farm2fork_en