Big Companies Can Turn the Tide on Food Waste—if They Act Now!

Food & Drink

There is no shortage of organizations that are committing to stopping food waste. Many have initiatives to reduce food waste by 30 to 50 percent sometime before 2030, the target year set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3.

But not many have proven that they can actually deliver on those ambitions.

“We’re getting way too comfortable with setting targets and goals that are decades away. These are things that we can accomplish within five-year time horizons, maybe even sooner,” says Pete Pearson of the World Wildlife Fund. “And all it takes is leadership and urgency.”

That’s why I was excited to see IKEA’s latest announcement—the company best known for Swedish modern furniture and meatballs successfully halved production of food waste, saving more than 20 million meals over four years. This is the first company of its scale to meet its food waste reduction goals—and they did it over the course of just a few years.

“Their achievement is a beacon of hope,” says Dana Gunders, Executive Director at ReFED. As a national expert on food waste, she says she admires and appreciates IKEA’s leadership in the space.

Halving food waste is an ambitious target for a company that operates in more than 40 countries and serves around 560 million meals per year—not to mention the complexity of implementing a solution across a wide range of geographies, languages, menu options, and cultural norms.

IKEA didn’t do it alone. Their story shows that in addition to ambitious targets, we also need collaboration between sectors.

Ingka Group, which owns most IKEA stores, partnered with artificial intelligence company Winnow to combine employee food waste awareness with technology. The Winnow Vision AI tool measures and registers food waste in IKEA kitchens to provide workers with a deeper understanding of what is being discarded and why, so they know where improvements can be made.

Winnow Founder Marc Zornes says that the “secret sauce” to make these ambitious targets a reality is, in addition to capital investment, “focusing the organization and putting the incentives in place.” Companies must have their own internal team leading food waste efforts.

According to Karen Pflug, Chief Sustainability Officer at Ingka Group, “the private sector has big responsibility to educate final consumers and prevent food waste in their own operations, which has a direct impact through all the food system.”

And there’s already a compelling business case for companies to invest. As Pearson points out, ending food loss and waste is “one of the only no-brainers out there in this climate space right now.”

By saving more than 20 million meals and avoiding almost 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, IKEA’s initiative saved the company US$37 million. ISS Guckenheimer has also worked with Winnow to save more than 1 million meals and US$2.6 million annually so far.

Many other partnerships are already at work. The Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment is bringing food businesses and local jurisdictions together to implement measurable action to halve food waste on the west coast. Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, and Walmart joined 10x20x30, an initiative bringing together 10 of the world’s biggest food retailers to each engage with 20 of their suppliers to halve food loss and waste by 2030.

IKEA’s story “sends an important signal to other businesses that there’s no excuse not to accelerate their own commitment and action for reducing food waste,” says Brian Lipinski of the World Resources Institute’s Food Program. He calls it “a world-first,” but I hope that it’s only the beginning of a long list of wins in this space.

When resources are devoted to the right places, we can reach and surpass bold ambitions for better food and agriculture systems. We need more leaders setting, meeting, and exceeding food waste reduction goals—and we have no time to waste!

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