I was in a grocery store a few days ago, picking oranges from the huge pile on offer. I’m usually quite careful not to drop fruit when I pick it, but this time one orange accidentally dropped. I went quickly to pick it back up, but before I had time to reach it, a teenager coming from behind and not noticing my efforts started kicking it around, just for fun. Trying to control my temper, I said a very… determined “Anteeksi!” (excuse me) and went ahead and picked up the orange from under the kid’s feet and put it back in the stash. The kid said “anteeksi” himself, and our interaction stopped here.
I was left very irritated though, because this reminded me of an enigma that keeps haunting me whenever I enter grocery stores here in Helsinki: why do we (as Western societies) treat our food with such disrespect? Why is it ok to throw out fruit just because it fell to the floor? Why is it ok to leave meat out of the freezer to spoil, when we decide not to buy it? Why do we think it's natural to not pay for a carton of eggs we've broken? Why is it ok to knock over a pack of cherry tomatoes with a trolley and just be irritated that it was in our way and leave it to be thrown out? Why is it ok for grocery stores to inflate their prices by dumping their food? Food production is one of the biggest burdens on our planet and biggest threats to the future of our children. How can we be so indifferent to food going to waste?!
It wasn’t the kid’s fault. He’s a teenager, of course he’ll kick things around. He hasn't been taught about climate change in school and he doesn’t get it. Yet. But I think we should find better solutions for the bigger picture, i.e. our systems and services.
The most important solution is obvious: education. Teach respect for food early, in schools, and later it'll feel natural. I remember reading an article recently about one Finnish school removing the bio waste container and requiring students to apologize to the kitchen staff when they needed to throw food away. This doesn’t go all the way to explaining the “why” behind, but it’s a great start. It teaches respect for the people making the food, it makes you think about how much you put on your plate and it helps you eat healthier as well.
But the education school provides may just be too slow for the kind of swift attitude change we need. I think there’s one actor that could have a huge impact in terms of educating consumers into respecting food, but they are falling so short! I'm talking about grocery stores.
I have seen grocery store employees treat food with the same disrespect I see in their customers so often that I have to wonder how much the grocery stores are contributing to the creation of the problem, when they should be part of the solution. The employees’ behavior is just a symptom. Without extra thought given to the subject, they will behave based on their defaults: those who care personally will care, those who don’t care personally won’t care. But the employees are not the big issue. The big question is how to align their behavior and the whole attitude towards food inside those companies. This goes all the way to company strategy - and even beyond to company mission.
The grocery store chains make most of their profits from selling food, which is a great responsibility. Some of them may have the corporate responsibility checklists on their websites, with many things ticked off. That’s an excellent start, but I think it could and should be taken much further. It should have a real social impact, through education. In my vision, one such company could become a major educator of treating food with the respect it deserves. This could manifest not only through separate programs and initiatives around the topic, but also through every single point of interaction with their customers - from the behavior and attitude of employees to the shelving of the merchandise and the display of product information, as well as education campaigns run inside the stores themselves. Wouldn’t that be something?
So here’s my plea to any client in the food industry we might be working with, now or in the future:
Dear client, food is an essential part of our lives and maybe the biggest burden on our earth. Please take responsibility and consider what it means to your company and to your customers. Give food the respect it deserves and, most importantly, teach all of us to give it the same respect. Make that your mission. Give meaning to your work and, as a result, give a different meaning to people’s encounters with your services.
In the end, you may just find yourself positively surprised by the financial outcomes.