Do you like strawberries? There’s a good chance you do. After all this is one of the tastiest fruits around and if you buy local strawberries when they’re in the season, you’re guaranteed a heavenly taste. There’s only one problem – you need to eat them quickly because strawberries are highly perishable and don’t ripen after being picked so they won’t survive more than 2-3 days in the fridge. This is true unless you’re buying strawberries at Marks and Spencer (M&S), which revealed that they’ve developed a new package that will help keep fruit fresh for up to two days longer.
The Guardian reported last week that the UK-based retailer is going to add a small plaster-style strip at the bottom of punnets (plastic containers) of strawberries, containing a patented mixture of clay and other minerals that absorb ethylene – the ripening hormone which causes fruit to ripen and then turn moldy. The new packaging is expected to have a minimum wastage saving of 4 percent during the peak strawberry season, or roughly about 800,000 strawberries.
Manufactured by the British firm It’s Fresh, this strip does not affect the recyclability of the packaging, and M&S claims there is no extra cost for its customers. “This new technology is a win-win for our customers – not only will their strawberries taste better for longer, but we really hope it will help them to reduce their food waste as they no longer need to worry about eating their strawberries as soon as they buy them,” Hugh Mowat, M&S Agronomist told the Guardian.
The cost is an interesting issue here because the new containers wouldn’t be such a win-win solution if customers would need to pay a premium for them. How is M&S avoiding higher costs for customers? Either they found a way to reduce the cost the containers themselves, so the addition of the strip does not increase the cost in total or they decided to reduce their profit margin because it assumes that this solution will increase sales enough to compensate for the lost margin. M&S, by the way, refuses to disclose, saying this information is confidential.
Either way, the fact that M&S managed to find a way to move forward with the new packaging is impressive. One of M&S competitors, Asda, tried to do the same thing before and failed. A spokeswoman for Asda told the Guardian that “we didn’t roll this out as our research didn’t show a benefit in terms of longer life when looking at the additional cost per punnet.”
If you’re wondering if it’s a coincidence that both retailers are looking for solutions to reduce their customers’ food waste, the answer is no. They’re both part of a list of UK retailers and suppliers that signed the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the grocery retail sector. One of the targets of the Courtauld Commitment is to reduce UK household food and drink wasted. So far participants managed to reduce UK household food and drink waste from 8.3 million tons in 2006-7 to 7.2 million tons in 2010.
The concept behind M&S’s new strawberries container is not complicated – the new packaging will make it easier for consumers to avoid food waste. Yet, I’m not surprised to see M&S succeeds where Asda failed. For M&S this is not just part of a one-off voluntary agreement, the company has sustainability integrated into its core business through its renowned Plan A. Through the 180 commitments included in Plan A M&S is working to combat climate change, reduce waste, use sustainable raw materials, trade ethically, and help its customers to lead healthier lifestyles. As M&S explains in their 2011 report, “putting Plan A at the heart of our business forces us to innovate – challenging ourselves to think of new and better ways of doing things.”
Helping consumers to save 800,000 strawberries from being thrown away is a good step in the right direction, but M&S, as well as other retailers still have a lot of work ahead – according to estimates, household food waste is the single largest contributor to UK food waste and at least 60 percent is avoidable. To do it, we need more examples of this kind of win-win innovative solution, helping consumers to save waste and enjoy better and tastier food while paying the same price.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.