Feeding people not bins: why avoiding food waste is more important than ever as the hospitality sector opens for business

28 May 2021

The UK rejoiced as pubs, restaurants and venues welcomed back the public in an important symbolic sign of a return to some kind of normal following a year we will never forget. We ask WRAP’s Special Advisor for Hospitality and Food Service, Eleanor Morris, to reflect back and look forward to how sustainability will be top of the menu for the sector as it recovers from the toughest time it has faced in living memory.

Q: The hospitality and food service sector has been amongst the hardest hit by lockdown. How have those in the industry have coped?

It has been sad for us all to see restaurants and other hospitality outlets forced to close in this period, but many have been able to continue trading by rapidly changing their offer to customers. According to UKHospitality’s tracker, there was a ‘catastrophic collapse’ in revenue during the second quarter of 2020 with sales plummeting by 87%. Apart from the obvious financial and human impact in terms of jobs, it has also meant that communities have lost their heartbeat – the place on their high street or town square which helps to connect people, stave off loneliness, enable invaluable social interaction.

Whilst not underestimating the cliff edge impact on the sector, it’s also important to give credit to those enterprising and dynamic chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, who showed real agility and flex to keep operating, or to repurpose their businesses as part of the emergency response. They continued to play important roles within their communities. We’ve heard some fantastic and heartwarming stories – hotels converted into homeless shelters and how businesses connected with grassroots charities, food banks, or companies to make sure that the surplus food they were suddenly left with was redistributed across the community.  Or changing their business models to still operate, using innovative technology to manage customers and food. They have really demonstrated the ingenuity and adaptability which are the hallmarks of the industry. And this will be important as businesses rebuild and play their important role in bringing people back together.

This is why I love working with the sector. Yes, it’s complex and made of businesses often working to tight margins, and it has seen momentous changes recently like never before, but it also can be so enterprising, agile and up for a challenge, even in these difficult times. And with the equivalent of 1 in every 6 meals served in the sector going in the bin, it’s a challenge that must be faced. That was really evident this Bank Holiday weekend with the sun finally making an appearance and pubs, cafes and restaurants thronging gratefully with activity. It made me realise just what we had missed!

Q: Despite the obvious challenges; is the pandemic also an opportunity?

The pandemic exposed the hospitality and food service sector to the fragilities of our ‘just in time’ supply chains. But rather than take the focus away from our biggest challenges of all: climate change, I think it has brought the reality of that into sharp focus and given us a glimpse of what we face in the future if we don’t seize this opportunity to hardwire resilience and sustainability into the way the sector works. There’s no doubt the next few months will continue to be volatile and unpredictable as we emerge from lockdown, but this is also an ideal moment for businesses to put into place measures which enable them to both respond to the present and be prepared for the future. Those who do that now will survive and go on to thrive.

I also think we are seeing a new kind of relationship between business and consumers. During the brief periods of opening up over the last year we saw hospitality businesses really step up and demonstrate the measures they were taking to keep customers safe. And I think customers are demanding and responding positively to those businesses who put their sustainability values on the same footing as profit. A crisis on the scale of the one we have experienced can often jolt people into re-examining their values, and into a permanent change of behaviour. The pandemic has turned on its head the preconceived notion that in times of crisis, people put self first. We have seen the putting of the common good first, and the hospitality industry has been at the heart of this because they deal and build relationships with people and communities.

Take for example the recent Food Waste Action Week, when our Guardians of Grub campaign joined forces with Love Food Hate Waste to show that wasting food feeds climate change. WRAP’s research has shown that too few of us make this link, but the week was an overwhelming success with both citizens and business. We know from our own research and others that despite, and perhaps even because, of the pandemic, an increasingly enlightened public will bring added pressure on businesses to act to halt the climate emergency. This is echoed in governments and there is a powerful global political agenda which will reach a crescendo this year at COP26. Yes, we are all desperate to enjoy life again, and to restore the economy, and the hospitality and food service sector exists to meet this demand, but I don’t think the public believe this should come at the expense of our planet anymore. Savvy operators will see the value of continuing to embed that value-set into their business model and appeal to the new, astute, climate emergency aware consumer.

So as the sector re-opens, there is a huge opportunity to harness these factors, take stock and rebuild in a way which puts sustainability at the heart of operations.

Q: How can we do this?

Reducing food waste is one of the simplest and most effective ways for the hospitality and food service sector to save money, boost profits and help mitigate the effects of climate change. We know that in the UK alone 75% of the more than one million tonnes a year which is thrown away from the sector could have been eaten. This waste is costing our industry £3.2 billion a year. It is also costing the earth.

Meanwhile, across the world, millions of people go hungry every night. It makes no sense, and it’s why I’m driven by a mission to feed people, not bins. By understanding this business blindspot, we can reduce the amount of edible food being wasted; by preventing it from happening, redistributing surplus food safely and enabling separate collection of food waste

WRAP has been working closely with the hospitality and food sector for many years through our world-leading and voluntary agreements the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement (2012-15) and the Courtauld Commitment. And with the UK Food Waste Reduction Roadmap we've been working one-to-one with many of the larger operators on how the sector can help the UK achieve UN Sustainable Goal 12.3 to halve food waste by 2030. The Hospitality and Food Service Sector Action Plan defines the actions the sector will take to help to deliver the Roadmap. We’ve developed a unique partnership which brings together businesses from across the supply chain to work together to reduce the environmental impact of food on the environment. It means we are all working to the same goal, and working together on how to get there.

Our award-winning Guardians of Grub campaign has been developed by the sector, for the sector, and we are now focusing on reopening right. So, if you’re a business wondering where to start, we can guide you in the right direction. Guardians of Grub makes available a wide range of great resources which can help any business, big or small, to target, measure, and act on reducing wasted food. Tools like the cost saving calculator where you can see within a few easy clicks how much you could save both financial and carbon; and simple measuring and tracking tools with the 15-minute online Cost Saving Skills course. We know that in the battle against food waste, measurement is perhaps the most valuable tool you have.

The sector continues to take action and share good practice. At a recent webinar, we heard from a host of business leaders who were taking action on their wasted food and recommending Guardians of Grub. They spoke of quick and impressive results, leading to big savings. They also spoke passionately about how the work aligns with their sustainability mission, and how it has been embraced by staff and customers alike. This is especially pertinent now, given that there is a real crisis of skills and recruitment across the sector and increasingly staff coming into this field want to join businesses that are demonstrating they are walking the walk on sustainability.

I thought it was especially interesting to hear how one panellist shared their watershed moment when they put in place measurement tools and were forced to confront the ‘shocking’ reality of the waste in their business. Another speaker talked about how by involving everyone, from top-down, and avoiding a ‘no blame’ approach, staff felt motivated and engaged - that they were involved in something ‘bigger than the business’.

I was also delighted when Guardians of Grub won the Stakeholder Engagement category at the recent Footprint Awards. It proved to me that there’s a big appetite (no pun intended) for the sector to change.

We’ve seen over the last year how the sector has stepped up to keep their customers safe – and that everyone from the kitchen porter to the owners have a role to play in ensuring this chain isn’t broken. This is what Guardians of the Grub is all about and why our message is resonating with the sector. We all have a role to play in reducing food waste, we can all make a difference, and everyone’s contribution is needed to make it work.

Q: What can we do beyond our own business?

Your experience is invaluable and helps to inspire others.

Why not try the Cost Saving Skills course. In 15 minutes, you will have everything you need to Target Measure and Act.  Our experience is that ‘seeing is believing’, so share how you are getting on and become part of the Guardians of Grub community; we’re constantly looking for more ways win the food waste fight.

You can also support our citizen facing campaign Love Food Hate Waste and get involved in the next Food Waste Action Week in March 2022. We know that it is only by everyone making that connection between the food they waste and the impact on the environment that we can make the difference. You have an audience to send powerful messages and to showcase that that the value of food includes sustainability as an essential ingredient.

Guardians of grub becoming a champion logo

You could also sign up to Guardians of Grub: Becoming a Champion, which is our new online learning programme (July to end September) to get you and your team up to speed on how to track, measure and reduce food waste. We’ve got a webinar on 17th June where you can find out all about it. We are building a powerful platform of passionate voices across the sector to accelerate the pace of change and encourage broader sector engagement with the sharing of top tips and case studies.

The hospitality and food service sector will play a vital role in building morale and boosting the economy, becoming again the heart of every community. It is one of the most creative, adaptable, and innovative industries in the world. It can also take the lead in the world’s biggest ever struggle. We are with you every step of the way as you protect profits and our planet.