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Americans Feel Guilty About Wasting Food, But Will That Change Anything?

Raz Godelnik
| Monday August 20th, 2012 | 1 Comment

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You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Americans waste a lot of food. After all we’re talking here about one of the most wasteful nations on Earth. What might surprise you is that many Americans also feel guilty about it. A new Shelton Group’s survey (Eco Pulse) found that 39 percent of Americans feel guilty about wasting food. Not only that, but apparently of all the “un-green” things that Americans could feel guilty about – not recycling, forgetting to bring reusable bags to the store, leaving the lights on when leaving a room – wasting food is ranked number one.

This is a fascinating finding. First, it gets you wondering why Americans feel guilty about wasting food more than they feel about wasting water (27 percent), not recycling things (21 percent), or not making energy-efficient home improvements (10 percent). Second, while Americans might feel guilty about wasting food, they only waste more – Americans’ per capita food waste has double since 1974, Jonathan Bloom writes in his book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). It might be some sort of a vicious cycle, where more waste generates more guilt, but then what does it say about guilt? Can it actually be translated into a corrective action of some sort?

Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO of Shelton Group, which conducted the survey, believes it’s no accident that wasting food is the number one eco-guilt. “This is an issue that gets right to the core of who we are as Americans. We were all taught to waste not, want not, and trained that wasting food equals being a bad person,” she said. This is certainly possible, assuming that these beliefs are not strong enough to change our behavior, but still get us to feel guilty about it.

My guesstimation is that there is also a visibility factor that gets people to feel guiltier about wasting food. When you throw away food, you actually see the food that is going to the garbage can (if you don’t compost) and it might be easier to connect it subconsciously with waste of money or being wasteful in general, which in return generates a feeling of guilt. These elements are probably weaker when it comes to wasting water (27 percent feel guilty about it) or electricity (22 percent), or not bringing reusable bags to the store (20 percent).

What about the environmental impact of wasting food – does it have an impact on the level of people’s guilt? I really doubt it. First, most people are probably not aware of the environmental consequences of food waste. Second, most people don’t think about the end life of thrown away food. According to Tensie Whelan, President of Rainforest Alliance, the Kellogg Foundation found that consumers think about food as arriving from the retailer to their fridge to their plate. There’s no before or after. Combine these two and you can understand why a survey conducted in the UK on food waste found that only 20 percent of those who said they care about it mentioned the environmental impact as a reason, compared to 68 percent who mentioned the waste of money as a reason. 36 percent, by the way, said they care about food waste because it makes them feel guilty.

One of the interesting questions here is if this finding actually matters, or in other words would the fact that Americans feel guiltier about food waste can lead them to be less wasteful? To figure it out, we also need to look at the reasons why 25 percent of the food Americans bring into their homes isn’t used. Jonathan Bloom, who provides this figure, explains that there are two main reasons. “Number one, people are busier these days with the advent of the two-working-parent family or more single-parent families. There isn’t as much time to convert the entire chicken into soup stock and create a whole other meal out of it, or things like that to repurpose leftovers into other meals. Consequently, there’s been a tremendous emphasis on convenience rather than using all of what we have,” he says. Number two, food has become even cheaper, he adds – it’s actually less than 10 percent of household spending nowadays.

So can guilt overcome substantial factors such as busy schedule and the relatively inexpensiveness of food wasting? Frankly, I don’t think so. Not only that guilt doesn’t seem to be a strong driver of behavior change, but it also looks like the problem here is more complicated. Unlike energy or water waste that can be addressed specifically with effective behavior change strategies, food waste is a part of a larger problem. Without looking into the big picture of how Americans produce and consume food, I’m not sure if you can effectively solve food waste, with or without guilt.

After all, there’s no shortage in great ideas on how to easily reduce food waste (check here and here), but without addressing the whole system, it’s like putting a band-aid instead of getting a surgery done. If America wants to reduce food waste, it needs to start making real changes in its food system, rather than feeling guilty all the way to garbage can.

[Image credit: Shelton Group]

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 Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.


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  • Jacquie Ottman

    Raz, I might argue that if 39% of Americans feel guilty about food waste, then 61% — an overwhelming majority don’t feel guilty. That’s the problem to solve. I read recently that more and more families are being issued food stamps. It might be interesting to see how much food such families waste. Until then, I’m afraid that culturally, Americans’ sense of unlimited resources, coupled with lack of appreciation for what it takes to harness such resources (e.g., bring fresh food to the table, conduct water into the home), Americans will continue to waste. One day I fear, we’ll look back and say, “Whatever were we thinking?” But until times get even harder, and resources more precious, I fear that day is quite off into the future.