Category — Features
Stop Greenwashing my Greens
By Divyaa Kumar
On Ugly Food in our Supermarkets, and Food Waste Solutionism
Whenever I go into Countdown, my new routine is to reach for the bags of fruit and vegetables with the cartoonish font crying out ‘The Odd Bunch’. It's a good choice – as someone in a perpetually cash-strapped state, any way of getting affordable vegetables into my diet is helpful, and the produce in the bags is often cheaper than their loose counterparts on the misted shelves.
However, when I am fondling the bags to check for blemishes or bruises,, I often catch myself wondering what actually makes these capsicums so different from the others, to justify their ‘odd’ status. The carrots, the onions, what defines them as odd? If you had an ‘odd’ pear next to a ‘pretty’ one, would you be able to tell the difference? I don't think I could. Are they just … regular produce, wearing a disguise?
When Countdown launched its The Odd Bunch programme 2017, it was touted as an initiative to reduce green waste caused by consumers refusing to buy ‘ugly food’. The launch was accompanied by eye-catching infographics about how much food is thrown away, how much it costs the country, and how terrible this all is for our climate footprint.
Countdown aren’t the first to do it, and the premise seemed simple enough – sell us, the consumer, ugly food so it won’t go to waste. It wasn’t a hard sell; those ‘ugly’ bundles of food are also cheaper, with a minimal detraction of quality. Pretty quickly, similar initiatives started up too – monthly subscription boxes of unusual produce, market stalls for misshapen vegetables – all aimed at reducing our food waste, and getting cheaper produce to the consumer.
Objectively this is a sound practice – the Aotearoa consumer base is growing more environmentally conscious, and want their new-found awareness reflected in their shopping habits. We understand the fast developing impacts of climate change, and want to do our part in mitigating disaster. Coupling this with the fact that approximately 33 percent of Aotearoa households face food insecurity, and that the Commerce Commision admits that it is overly expensive to shop at our supermarkets, we can agree that these programmes appear to be beneficial across the board.
In reality, however, is The Odd Bunch (and other programmes of its ilk) just a clever greenwashed marketing scheme dressed up as environmental climate justice?
As consumers grow ever more conscious and aware of our ecological effects, we look to match our political views with how and where we spend our money. Could it be that Woolworths Group, the owner of Countdown, has cottoned onto this, and is therefore capitalising on a trend? Is the actual goal here to capitalise on a consumer desire with little to no cost to the company? The people want cheaper products, but less waste? Done. Is it just an opportunistic means to a capitalist end, an environmental issue to co-opt for the faux-activist aesthetics and to turn a quick dollar? If so, how did we get here?
Back in 2014, the University of Otago released the results of a study into food waste in Aotearoa, and it is from this study that many ugly food and anti-waste advocates get their numbers from. Eye watering statistics such as ‘$872m a year’, ‘120,000 tonnes’ and ‘40 percent of food wasted’ are slapped onto every olive-coloured infographic, and quoted in every article about how to reduce waste and how to stop organic material ending up in landfills. The solution, these advocates proclaim, is to stop the food going into landfill before it reaches a potential consumer. Divert it from the farm directly to the market and a potential consumer, no layover at the dump required. The issue with this interpretation is that the advocates for reducing food waste are getting the problem exactly backwards.
The research conducted in this Otago study was specifically focused on ‘end user waste’ – that is the food waste and other rubbish that comes at the end of the food cycle – and how much of this, from both homes and commercial kitchens, could have been diverted from landfill. So we’re talking onion skins and coffee grounds, mandarin peels and speckled eggshells, an over-bruised banana, or the wilting bag of pungent spinach you forgot about.
These technically edible, yet entirely not so, foods are what make up the majority of this waste. Multiply your own kitchen with every hospitality and food service kitchen in the country, and you can envisage the small mountain of the end-user waste this study was concerned with.
Food waste is frequently articulated as an environmental crisis, a claim that rests on two arguments. The first is climate-oriented — that when food waste ends up in a landfill, it rots and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet. In this argument, those aforementioned households and retail kitchens are largely to blame, and the solutions put forward to address end-user food waste mostly centre upon policing behaviour, whether through more public education campaigns or hyper-detailed waste disposal systems. The object of thrown-away food bears scrutiny, even though it is the way we dispose of food — dumping it in landfills — that generates methane emissions. Large-scale composting programs for example, which could actually put a dent in this methane problem, often require public investment and political will — something consumer-focused finger-pointing does not.
The other, less broadcasted appeal anti-waste advocates make can be referred to as an ‘embedded cost’. Because producing food entails the use of land and water, fertilisers and pesticides, fuel and transportation (the list goes on), food waste is seen as the wasting of all of these ‘costs’ as well — the idea that embedded in the tomato you plucked from the shelf are all the environmental impacts that it took to produce them, the weight of all of the resources used to get it to your local store. This kind of thinking is what allows us to claim that when we waste 120,000 tonnes of food, that the $872m cost of food waste isn’tjust food waste — that it is inclusive of all of the emissions attributed to the growing, harvesting, processing, transportation, and distribution of the food itself.
This creative mathematics suggests that wasting less food would somehow undo all of the potential harms of food production. But the food cycle does not care whether or not you compost from your kitchen — all the impacts that brought that food to you are done deals. In focusing so much on the waste of food, we give way to things further up the ladder. There is the assumption that tackling food waste would make its way back up the supply chain and signal to farmers to grow fewer crops. But that seems unlikely in our current agricultural system where farmers are responsible to the demands of their customers – the supermarket vendors – rather than actual consumers of their produce.
Obsessing over the potential impacts of food waste eclipses more interesting and nuanced questions we might ask of food production that don’t take for granted the ecological devastation seemingly inherent to our contemporary agriculture practices. Wasting less food in a dysfunctional food system won’t make that system any less dysfunctional. Taking stock of food waste’s environmental impacts appears to be more useful as a marketing tool rather than a reliable reflection of where, and how, those harms come about, and who is responsible for them.
The next idea that gets bandied about is that if we can’t save the food from being wasted, can uneaten food be diverted to the poor? Never far from the fact that 40 percent of our food is wasted, is the fact that 33 percent of our population face some form of food insecurity (approximately two in every five). If food insecurity were simply the result of a lack of food, then diverting it those insecure might address the scourge of hunger and food waste reduction simultaneously. This is the basis of programs like Waste-Not Kitchen (a charity that intervenes in almost-expired foods being thrown in dumpsters by supermarkets) and Everybody Eats (an initiative that takes commercial food waste and provides a pay-what-you-can three course meal through volunteer labour).
But hunger like this is a result of chronic poverty, a problem that no amount of food redistribution and volunteer labour can seriously tackle. Sociologist Janet Poppendieck argues that rather than seriously addressing the problem of hunger, poverty continues to grow when stop-gap charitable action replaces consistent public policy, unintentionally feeding the problem in ever decreasing circles. Rather than focus more structurally on labour and workers’ rights and economic justice issues, institutions uniting around fighting hunger often concern themselves with addressing immediate needs in ways that don’t rock the political boat.
Some emergency food providers overseas have recognised the shortcomings of food waste solutionism entering the sphere of anti-hunger and food insecurity work – how serving low- and unwaged peoples the “castoffs of the industrial food system” is not only a bit silly structurally, but potentially deeply offensive. Neatly summing up the way these waste-diversion concepts can further mess with an individual's right to the dignity of acquiring their own food: “garbage food for garbage people is not the solution to hunger.” By focusing on food waste, local institutions (such as Countdown) wash their hands of their responsibility to ensure their workers are paid — and therefore fed — just as fast as they shift responsibility for climate action to consumers, diverting our attention from a more holistic food justice direction.
Labour then becomes the key issue with which we might find solace. Pay people more for their work, so that they can afford to buy the food themselves, intervening so the food won’t go into the farmland bin, and from that bin to landfill. Ignoring the fact that ‘paying people more’ is either a government level change (adjustments to minimum wage for example) or financial decisions made by independent corporations, this argument rests upon the notion that access to nutritious food, and by proxy a functioning biodiverse environmental system, is something to be earned and bartered for through the completion of a labour-wage exchange, rather than something intrinsically necessary for a dignified livelihood. The structural and systematic changes necessary to fix this disparity go far beyond anything individual consumers can tackle with the swipe of a debit card.
Where labour actually intersects with food waste in Aotearoa, beyond wages and the cost of living, is at the production level on the farms around the country. As highlighted throughout our lockdowns and border measures, immigrant workers make up a large part of our seasonal agricultural labour needs. Without access to those seasonal labourers, food remains unpicked on the vine, buried in the ground, and unharvested from trees across the country. The labour issue here is two-fold: that the labour of harvesting crops itself is seasonal, and therefore unstable and insecure income for anyone who works these positions, and that the wage rate (and other non-monetary compensations, such as lodging) is at such a low rate and quality that it becomes next to impossible to live upon, especially if you are, like most of our seasonal workers, sending a decent chunk of your paycheck back to your families in your home country. Farmers have tried to persuade local residents into picking the crops, but as many have noted, accusing a population of not wanting to work for poverty wages in an intensely physical and remote labour market that requires a specific skill set does not entreat a workforce to your economic plights.
Problems like these are structural, in regards to the construction of a business’ financial plans. It boils down to costs and remuneration – the cost of the sale of the produce cannot outweigh the cost of the manufacturing of said produce, otherwise you’re working at a deficit. It puts the onus of maintaining low consumer-end produce costs on the farmers, as opposed to the vendors who could reevaluate their own business models and profit margins, and on a governmental level, who have the power to intervene and enact dramatic systematic changes to how our food system could function. The capitalist notion of infinite growth is fast reaching the end of its tether, and we are woefully underprepared for what happens when we reach an unfixable crisis point.
So how did we get to the point where we’re focusing on buying ugly food rather than the root issues of food insecurity and political reforms?
Frankly, the latter two are not as fashionable a cause to throw yourself behind, because thinking about our culpability in an imminent ecological disaster and dramatic, fundamental systemic changes don’t have the same instant feel-good boost as stuffing your anxiety into a bundle of slightly knobbly apples with a cheerful cartoon label. Studies also suggest that encouraging personal ‘green-ness’ can be a lobbying technique to weaken support for public policy reform.
These realities, coupled with a generalised uninformed and uneducated understanding of the space that ugly fruits and vegetables currently occupy in our food landscape, leaves us as consumers vulnerable to manipulation by green-washed marketing schemes. Most ugly food does in fact leave the farm it was grown in – after it gets pulled from the ground or picked from the tree, most of the produce goes to a sorting house, where everything is washed, sorted and packed. This is where, in our collective imagination, the waste happens – food sorters pulling out a less-than-round potato and throwing it onto a heap destined for landfill.
In practice, at this point food is only thrown out when it is entirely inedible i.e. rotten. Those lumpen potatoes are actually just separated from the prettier ones, and trucked off elsewhere to get sliced, diced, fried and floured, to bring us all manner of crunchy potato chip goodness, potato flour, frozen chips, canned soups and so on. The same goes for carrots, peas, and all the variety of funny-looking fruits grown along the East Coast. They get sliced and diced and frozen as stir-fry mixes. Bad-looking berries are curated into mixed bags for the freezer aisle, or covered in sugar and simmered down into jam. Pockmarked peaches and misshapen pears get poured into cans, or thrown into super blenders to make smoothies and juices. Almonds get slivered, ground into flour or transformed into dairy-free milks. Why would you slice up a perfectly round pumpkin to turn it into baby food, when you can charge twice the price for it, and blend up the ugly one instead. Who's gonna know any different?
Every once in a while of course, you’ll run into a variety of produce that only really works fresh, and doesn’t lend itself to being processed or preserved. This mostly occurs with leafy greens – mesclun sauce isn’t really a thing – but makes up such a minuscule amount of the tonnage of waste each year that energy devoted to its reduction could be better temporarily directed elsewhere.
Ugly food, by and large, is not being collectively hauled to a landfill and poured into a great trench in the earth. It gets used, because whilst our food system may be a dysfunctional hot mess, one of the things it is very good at is using every single part of what’s grown. If there is a way to sell it, it gets sold. The truth is that ugly food has always been in our diet. We just don’t recognise it as such, because it looks like salsa.
Overall, the biggest contributors to food waste are actually the end-user waste, immigration and labour issues, and climate change. They are obstacles that aren’t as fun or sexy to overcome, because they are not problems the everyday consumer can fix with a simple yes/no choice in the fruit and vege section of a supermarket. They are systemic problems, which require systemic changes. The responsibilities of these problems being solved sits with those who operate the systems, and not on the consumer. It is not something that can be solved with a monetary exchange for aesthetically odd produce and a pat on the back. We have to be wary that doing what we can, on an individual scale, is important, but that we cannot bear the brunt of the weight of these problems entirely. We cannot do it perfectly, but it’s better to do something halfway than not at all – you can’t change the world if you don’t interact with it.
It’s not all doom and gloom however – the greatest outcomes of these greenwashed ‘ugly food’ campaigns is that the kōrero on food waste is now a mainstream topic, and that marginally cheaper fruit and vegetables are made available, which are opportunities everyone can agree upon as a beneficial step, however small, in the right direction. The trick now is keeping the light on this issue long enough, with enough energy and passion, so that those with the power might take notice, and ratify the urgently needed changes. Anything other than systemic overhaul is the real waste.
By Divyaa Kumar
Photography by Nicholas Eckhardt