I had the privilege of speaking at the inaugural Companies Vs. Climate Change conference last week on a topic that is near and dear to me: prevention of food waste. I wanted to illustrate the point that by reducing food waste, you not only conserve resources, but you are taking a tangible step to combat climate change. 

I started by asking attendees if they knew a place in the world where there is no food waste. Few were willing to answer the question—so I offered up a personal experience: backpacking in the wilderness. For anyone who hikes long distances in the back country, you are well aware of the leave no trace attitude and the fact that anything you pack, you must carry. Faced with this mandate, you become personally vigilant about what you take, what you eat, and what you waste. Meals must be planned in advance, packed in proper portions, and protected from external factors. It dawned on me that this backpacking approach to food could also serve us well when we think about ways to solve the food waste challenges facing our society.

As a society, we accept staggering food waste levels—statistics that show we waste at least a third of the food intended for consumption. It is interesting to think about other things we buy, such as electronics. We don’t buy three smart phones and then throw one away the next week. But, with food, that is exactly what happens every day of every month around the world.

We can do better. Last year, I wrote about the historic Paris Agreement and how food waste provides each of us an opportunity to reduce our impact on a daily basis. One year later, following the COP22 meetings and a renewed commitment by American businesses to implement practices and standards that will alleviate their collective climate change impact, I still see an enormous opportunity for individual citizens to contribute to solving climate change. 

Food waste contributes more than 4 billion tons a year of carbon emissions, more than the total emissions of every country in the world, except for the U.S. and China. A recent study by the ReFed project highlighted a range of options that could lead to a reduction in food waste of 20% in the U.S. through prevention, recovery and recycling. Furthermore, preventing food waste across the supply chain has the greatest return on investment, much greater than donating or composting food that has been produced but not eaten. This is especially important for businesses looking to identify ways to drive value while reducing their greenhouse gas impact.

I presented some ideas on how the food industry can work together to educate, collaborate, and innovate to prevent waste across the supply chain and with consumers.

  • Plan: Use date labels that more clearly indicate when food is still good to eat. Consumer confusion over date labels is estimated to contribute to 20% of food waste. Use of “best if used by” and “expires on” have been shown to be more effective.
  • Pack: Make food available in portions that give consumers or restaurants more options for meal preparation. For example, 62% of U.S. households have only one or two people. Purchasing or preparing too much food is avoidable waste.
  • Protect: Extending the freshness of many foods can be done with packaging technology and a focus on proper storage conditions. Over half of food waste at retail and in consumer homes is due to food going bad before it can be cooked or eaten.

If we view the climate challenge through the backpacker’s mindset, and start adopting best practices for eradicating food waste, I believe we can see a significant reduction in this global problem. Preventing food waste is good for the climate, good for the economy, and good for society.