Can Social Media Be a Tool for Reducing Consumers’ Food Waste? A Behaviour Change Experiment by a UK Retailer

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This paper examines whether retailers can use social media as a tool to trigger changes to reduce food waste from households. The study was the result of an ongoing collaboration between university researchers and employees of the United Kingdom (UK) supermarket Asda (part of Walmart). The aim of the project was to develop and test scientifically rigorous field-based interventions to determine the extent to which a company could impact the behaviours of consumers while simultaneously contributing to scientific knowledge. It has been asserted that face-to-face interactions are an important element of behaviour change interventions. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether using a social media tool could replicate the influence of face-to-face interactions to influence behaviour at a much larger scale than limited resources would otherwise allow. Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds (Young, Russell, Robinson); KEDGE Business School (Barkemeyer), 2016
Paper - Can Social Media Be a Tool for Reducing Consumers’ Food Waste? A Behaviour Change Experiment by a UK Retailer
Language: EN - English
Country: UK

Author:

William Young

Sally V. Russell

Cheryl A. Robinson

Ralf Barkemeyer

Publication Date

November 14, 2016

Affiliation:

Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds (Young, Russell, Robinson); KEDGE Business School (Barkemeyer)

This paper examines whether retailers can use social media as a tool to trigger changes to reduce food waste from households. The study was the result of an ongoing collaboration between university researchers and employees of the United Kingdom (UK) supermarket Asda (part of Walmart). The aim of the project was to develop and test scientifically rigorous field-based interventions to determine the extent to which a company could impact the behaviours of consumers while simultaneously contributing to scientific knowledge. It has been asserted that face-to-face interactions are an important element of behaviour change interventions. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether using a social media tool could replicate the influence of face-to-face interactions to influence behaviour at a much larger scale than limited resources would otherwise allow.

The introductory and background sections explain why minimising food waste is crucial for obtaining a sustainable food system, as it has serious economic, social, and environmental repercussions. "Avoidable" household food waste is defined as "food and drink thrown away because it is no longer wanted or has been allowed to go past its best." It is estimated that one-third of edible food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally each year; in the UK, food waste derived from households accounts for 7 million tonnes of total food and drink wasted each year. Reportedly, 4.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 eq.) is avoided by preventing waste, compared to 0.5 tonnes of CO2 eq. avoided by treating waste. Thus, much of the work being carried out to reduce household food waste has focused on targeting the behaviours that create or exacerbate food waste.

Much retailer activity in the UK on food waste has been coordinated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) using multi-stakeholder "Courtauld" agreements, which are voluntary industry agreements to help UK consumers cut down food waste in households using WRAP and retailers' campaigns. The campaigns have focused around shopping smarter (using shopping lists), storing products better, planning meals, using up food that could be thrown away, and composting food waste where possible. However, it has recently been argued that social influence interventions are typically more effective when compared to mere information provision, and could therefore be seen as a promising avenue in this context. The results of the meta-analysis of intervention experiments by Abrahamse and Steg (2013, p.1774) found that the social influence approaches that were most effective were:

  • "Block leaders and social networks" - for example, recyclers encouraging their neighbours. This relies on the notion that people are more likely to take act if information is provided by someone in their social network. The stronger the ties in the network, the more likely the information will affect behaviour.
  • "Public commitment making" - for example, signing a community pledge to conserve water. Publicly binding someone to a behaviour has been linked to the need for consistency and social pressure to adhere to the commitment.
  • "Modelling" - for example, a couple showing their neighbours how to compost. People are more likely to commit to something if they see other people undertaking the behaviour.

    The factor in common with these approaches is the "face-to-face" interaction that accentuates these influences, but could online social networks could replicate face-to-face social influence?

    To find out, this study implemented three interventions with messages to encourage reductions in food waste. The first was a social influence intervention that used the retailer's Facebook pages to encourage its customers to interact. This campaign asked Asda customers to submit their favourite recipes that involved using leftover food and directed users to a website providing 'Love Food, Hate Waste' tips from WRAP on reducing food waste at home. Two additional information interventions were used as a comparison through: (i) the retailer's print/digital magazine, whose October 2014 monthly issue featured tips on storage advice, recipe inspiration, and methods to use up leftovers; and (ii) e-newsletter, which is circulated every two weeks to 1.4 million customers and discussed using leftovers to reduce food waste, featuring a web link connecting customers to the social media campaign encouraging them to share ideas for reducing food waste. The second feature highlighted correct storage as a method of keeping food fresh and preventing waste, and provided a link for purchasing food storage items.

Three national surveys tracked customers' self-reported food waste one month before as well as two weeks after and five months after the interventions. The final sample included 2,018 matching responses across all three surveys. The control group included those who said they had not seen any of the interventions. The degree to which consumers had engaged in food waste behaviours was measured using two items, including frequency and quantity.

Results showed that the social media intervention did not perform differently from the information interventions or control group, which all showed a significant reduction in self-reported food waste by customers. There were no socio-economic trends from the data that could have helped explain factors in other research. The results of this study could contribute to the existing literature in four ways.

  1. The findings demonstrate that although participants engaged in the Facebook initiative they did not outperform the control group on any of the measures of food waste behaviour reduction. Perhaps this is the nature of the topic (reducing food waste), which is contrary to what is mainly discussed on the social media site, i.e., promoting the consumption of products. Another way to look at this result is that social media tool should be classified as an information intervention, as it is not displaying the elements of the face-to-face influence of the other physical face-to-face interventions. Further research could focus on how this face-to-face influence could be incorporated into behaviour change interventions to millions of customers by a retailer without spending a huge amount of money.
  2. The results demonstrate the necessity of field-based research in fully understanding how interventions affect consumers in a real-life setting. This points to the requirement for further field tests to explore how competing demands and "noise" impact on the efficacy of planned interventions. Further research could combine social laboratory and field-based experiments to identify factors that are effective.
  3. Researchers and practitioners worked closely together throughout all stages of this research; this demonstrates how this method can influence the decisions, actions, and processes in an organisation and hence have a tangible impact.
  4. This work confirms that the most frequently wasted food items of salad, fruit, bakery, and vegetables. There seems a real issue of differences in what consumers think they consume of these products and hence buy and what they actually consume. More research could be done here to add to sociology research on eating and cooking.

In short, this study illustrates both the potential and the limitations of large retailers' attempts to bring about incremental change in the behaviour of their mainstream customers. For more significant change, "society needs appropriate infrastructure and legal changes to help leading companies to enhance their efforts to manage sustainable behaviours. Even large retailers are limited in their reach and only one out of a wide range of actors that have the potential to shape their customers' behaviour. In addition, companies are unlikely to go into areas that will reduce profitability or competiveness such as reducing consumption. Ultimately, wider governance solutions, for example at the sector-level and/or including a stronger role of government actors, may be required to achieve effective reductions in food waste."

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