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Breaking the food chain: changing attitudes to food waste

By Tugce Ozgen Genc - Posted on 8 February 2023

Tugce Ozgen Genc is researching consumption practices around food waste and how to engage people into making positive change as part of her PhD. Here, she explains what her research is focusing on and what the next steps will be.

According to the UNEP Food Waste Index Report (2021), 931 million tonnes of food were wasted in 2019, corresponding to 17% of total global food production. Alongside its economic burden and social implications, food waste (FW) makes a huge contribution to climate change. To this end, one of the UNSDGs (12.3) aims to halve global FW by 2030.

To reach this ambitious goal, the collaborative effort of all parties in the global food supply chain is needed. However, at the same time, households are regarded as the biggest opportunity area accounting for 61% of total food waste. Therefore, campaigns to change household food consumption practices have a significant place in most national food waste-reduction plans.

Household food consumption practices, a series of many minor activities (i.e., poor planning, purchasing more than needed, relying on date labels, and so on) are a key focus because wastage of food is not a mere decision given at a point in time, but results from a chain of habits performed to cope with daily problems. These habits are socially constructed, complex, and persistent institutions, and any change process will be emergent and difficult to model and track fully. Thus, targeting households is as challenging and recondite as it is promising due to knowledge gaps around how to drive and track practice change.  

To address this problem, my PhD utilises actor engagement behaviors (AEBs) as a lens to investigate this phenomenon. My PhD is a joint project between Strathclyde and Adelaide business schools and carried out in two contexts - Scotland and Australia. My supervisors (Juliette Wilson and Matthew Alexander from Strathclyde and Jodie Conduit from the University of Adelaide) and I argue that AEBs can be understood, organised, and managed as a practice change mechanism, therefore, offering a strategic intervention. In short, my PhD aims to explore the ways of using AEBs to facilitate changes in entrenched food consumption practices around food waste.

Considering the relevance and immediacy of the food waste problem, we place emphasis on both practical implications alongside theoretical contributions to the engagement field. We have collaborated with practitioners from key organisations delivering nation-wise FW-reducing campaigns in both contexts including Zero Waste Scotland and Green Industries South Australia using meetings and workshops to capture their perspective and reflect on research design.

To date, I have completed a Netnographic analysis of a food waste campaign’s (LoveFoodHateWaste) Facebook communities in Scotland and Australia. The study investigates the social media content (SMC) posted by practitioners and member comments as indicators of their engagement. Messy AEBs are organised as a form of institutional work. The findings offer an overarching classification that considers a multitude of engagement behaviors, even the negative ones, necessary for a campaign to positively impact practice change. The study proposes that practitioners should be innovative and employ multiple SMC types to control the forces between different institutional work forms. Furthermore, we emphasise the practitioner’s active role as an engaging party facilitating members’ institutional activity rather than as an institutional entrepreneur attempting to directly alter their practices.  

Before moving on to the next study, it was critical to learn how these insights count in practitioners’ life world, and whether they introduce meaningful solutions for their everyday needs and experiences. In this respect, at all touchpoints with practitioners, I opened study findings up for discussion and reflection, and let these interactions refine the study propositions and plans for the next steps. By validating these findings with practitioners, we confirmed that implementing and managing household food waste reduction campaigns is really a challenge for practitioners. Such that one expert noted that they strategically prefer to allocate their resources to food waste diversion (revaluation of the waste) because prevention necessitates altering practices, which is an arduous undertaking. Most importantly, when addressing the challenge, they referred to their lack of knowledge about what their role should be on social media, and how they should react to various engagement behaviors. Thus, the effective use of social media in food waste campaigns emerged strongly to further validate our research.

For the next phase of the study, we will undertake an experimental study to test certain propositions that emerged from study one, for example investigating engagement behavior differences across group characteristics (i.e, age, gender, or intensity of involvement with cooking and food in general) as key questions remain around gaining a better understanding of the role of these characteristics for segmenting purposes. Apart from having a clearer understanding of the next steps, we consolidated our relationships with practitioners such that conducting field experiments with their support is more likely now.

The Strathclyde team recently traveled to Australia where I delivered a seminar to a mixed audience of academicians and practitioners at Adelaide Business School. In addition, we had the opportunity to discuss research findings with field experts through one-to-one meetings. Moreover, I attended the ANZMAC 2022 conference where I presented my research, connected with other researchers studying the intersection of food and sustainability, and benchmarked my approach. I tried to reflect the main highlights among the many benefits of this experience in this blog: the validation of what I have done so far and the projection of what I am going to do next.

Tugce received funding support from the University of Strathclyde through the PGR Travel Award and Marketing Department (conference support) and from the University of Adelaide, which together enabled her to carry out these research activities.

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