How one university-business collaboration is fighting global food waste

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Approximately one-third of what we buy for consumption goes into the bin.

By Clara Chooi 

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Food wastage is a global problem. Every year, approximately one-third of what we buy for consumption goes into the bin – that’s approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food.

The problem is especially pronounced in the world’s richest and most industrialised nations. By UN estimates, food losses and waste in developing nations amount to roughly US$310 billion, while in industralised countries, the figure amounts to US$680 billion. That’s over double the size of the Australian national budget for 2019.

The per capita waste in Europe and North America is between 95kgs and 115kgs per year while in Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, every individual throws away between six and 11kgs of food every year.

To put this into greater perspective: consumers in rich countries waste nearly as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire sub-Saharan African region produces (230 million tonnes).

These are worrying numbers for at least two reasons:

  • It’s bad for the environment: Food waste is responsible for 8 percent of global manmade greenhouse gas emissions
  • It’s morally wrong: Every night, 800 million people go to bed hungry. That means roughly one in nine people on the planet suffers from malnourishment and starvation.
soup kitchen
At least 1 in 9 people on the planet suffers from starvation.

Anyone reading these statistics would agree that something needs to be done to balance the scales a little. Unfortunately, when it comes to taking personal responsibility for a crisis that has no immediate impact on daily life, many shrug it off as if it’s someone else’s problem to solve.

But much like the climate crisis and the global plastic trash problem, this is the collective responsibility of every single human inhabitant of the planet – not merely that of governments, nonprofits, and international aid agencies.

And a simple behaviour change at home is a great place to start.


In the UK, British supermarket retailer ASDA and researchers from the University of Leeds recently succeeded in doing the near impossible – convincing over two million people to change their consumption behaviours.

The company teamed up with the University of Leeds in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), which is an Innovate UK programme to help businesses improve their competitiveness and productivity through academic collaborations. With the help of researchers from the university’s Sustainability Research Institute and Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, and GBP180,000 in funding, ASDA set out to:

  • Reduce the environmental impact of its 18 million customers through encouraging positive behavioural changes. This could, in turn, save these customers money and enhance brand loyalty;
  • Identify opportunities for new sustainable products and cost savings for ASDA through its supply chain; and
  • Attract new customers by improving ASDA’s sustainability credentials.

Noble as they are, these are not easy goals to achieve. Trying to affect behaviour change is a tall order – studies have shown that it takes at least two months of repeated action for a new habit to really stick. And that’s if the person intends to make the change.

So how does a company convince millions of people to adopt a new habit for a benefit that’s not immediately obvious? Here’s how.

First, two recent Leeds graduates were embedded with ASDA for the research, a key requirement of a KTP. Then, working closely with ASDA employees and customers, the KTP research team co-produced three activities:

1. Survey

The team produced a sustainability survey to understand ASDA customers’ behaviour patterns and needs.

This helped confirm to ASDA that there was a “significant” commercial opportunity in helping customers cut back on waste; 93 percent said they cared about ‘being green’, while 85 percent said they looked to retailers to help them reduce waste at home.

The findings from the survey would later go on to inform the next two phases of the project as well as ASDA’s wider sustainability strategy.

2. Communications campaign

After receiving the survey results, the team went on to design, execute and evaluate a 21-month multi-channel communications campaign to influence customer behaviour in-store and at home.

This included offering customers advice on everything from food storage to labelling and even creating recipe inspirations for leftover foods. On top of that, the retailer organised in-store events that encouraged customers to publicly pledge to change their behaviours at home.

In doing so, the team succeeded in turning the goal of reducing food waste into a personal and societal value, and the collective responsibility of both ASDA and its customers.

3. Measure

Upon completion of the campaign, the team conducted its analysis of ASDA’s green product lines and purchase behaviours, the insights of which would inform its future strategy for product development.

The results offered plenty of promise. According to the university, the project was showed to have a positive effect on customer behaviour – 81 percent said they planned to follow the retailer’s advice on food waste, while at least two million made changes in their households as a result of the interventions.

On top of reducing overall waste, these households reportedly saved on average GBP57 per annum, simply by adopting ASDA’s recommendations.

ASDA, meanwhile, managed to increase its profits through better customer loyalty and reduction of packaging. The project also helped inform ASDA’s long-term sustainability strategy and burnished its sustainability credentials in the eyes of its customers.

Now complete and rated “outstanding” by independent assessors, the knowledge gained from the project continues to benefit the company, and wider society, today.

Laura Babbs, a Leeds University alum who worked on the project, has now become a permanent member of ASDA, serving as its sustainability member. Cheryl Robinson, a new associate, was employed to see the KTP through to completion and has now taken up a role at the company as well.

Babbs says the KTP helped embed the sustainability ethos into ASDA’s daily working practices.

“The KTP allowed us to deliver a truly groundbreaking research project that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible,” she says. “The insight from the associates and academic partners delivered real savings for our customers and will shape our strategy for years to come.”

ASDA Chief Customer Officer Andy Murray says the partnership truly helped the company learn how to better communicate with its customers, by understanding their needs and wants.

“By partnering with the University of Leeds, the team has been able to take our insight and really explore this area, meaning that we now have a greater understanding of customer attitude and behaviour, helping shape the way we communicate with our customers and ultimately the way we do business,” he says.

But it’s not all business and profit. Murray says ASDA remains firmly committed to its sustainability strategy and will continue efforts to minimise food waste.

“While helping our customers live more sustainably is a step in the right direction, we understand the importance of addressing this issue throughout our entire supply chain.

“This is just one of many initiatives we are undertaking as we aim to tackle the issue in collaboration with everyone from our customers and suppliers, to our colleagues in-store,” he says.