This is a guest post by Julie Hill, author of The Secret Life of Stuff, and a Green Alliance associate.
The news that the companies signed up to WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment are seriously off track for meeting their target for reducing food waste in their supply chains (only 0.4 per cent reduction against a target of five per cent by end of 2012) will doubtless be seized upon by opponents of ‘voluntary agreements’.
They will argue that without legally enforceable targets, there will always be incentives for some companies to underperform, and undermine the efforts of those willing to put the work in and spend the money. In a difficult investment climate, why should significant resource be expended changing what they do in order to meet a voluntary target? The brand can manage away the negative effects of failing more cheaply than managing the change required to come up to scratch.
This is all true, but ignores the underlying value of such agreements. Without them, and in the absence of a legal process to set stretching targets for waste reduction, there would be no incentive to establish baseline information and understand supply chains. There would be less likelihood of internal systems being set up to monitor progress, and no-one interested in hearing reports. With a voluntary agreement there must be at least the beginnings of a corporate system to manage environmental impacts where one might not have existed before.
What should concern us more is why, in an age of rocketing commodity prices, pressure on budgets, and widespread awareness of the environmental externalities of food production, it should still be morally acceptable and economically viable to waste food. Households and businesses are almost equally guilty, with 7.2 and 6.6 million tonnes of food wasted each year respectively. The reason is simple: we still haven’t seriously set about either designing out or pricing out that waste (and the first would be a consequence of the second).
The Courtauld story must act as a warning of government policy failure as much as corporate failure. It should not detract from the significant progress on packaging reduction and landfill diversion achieved by sheer hard slog at WRAP and the majority of the signatory organisations. Most important is to continue to support the process, but work harder for a political and policy climate that enables it to succeed. If, on the other hand, it can’t be made to work, then the case for a long-term landfill ban on food waste will get stronger.