Does appearance matter? After all, beauty is only skin deep, right? While we’d like to believe this is the way things should be, life teaches us this is not the case, not even when it comes to fruit and vegetables.
When was the last time you bought ugly fruit or vegetables? A misshapen cucumber, a deformed carrot, or a discolored zucchini? You probably have a hard time remembering because these sorts of ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables are screened and thrown away before they reach the supermarket’s shelves to ensure customers see only fruits and vegetables with perfect (or near perfect) shape, size, and color.
The result is that we have a wasteful food system – in the UK, for example, according to the Soil Association, 20-40 percent of produce is rejected because it’s misshapen. If you wonder why the produce doesn’t get used for canned goods or processed foods rather than being sent to the landfill, NRDC’s report on the wasteful American food system has the answer, “Although some off-grade products — those that are not of a quality grade to sell to major markets – go to processing, many do not. Most large processors have advanced contracts with suppliers and often require specific attributes that make the product amenable to processing,” it explains.
The size of this wasteful phenomenon has driven a growing number of entrepreneurs and organizations to look for ways to change this unsustainable reality.
One of latest effort is the ‘ugly fruit’ campaign from three German students trying to make the case that selling ugly produce is not just about being more sustainable but also about taking advantage of a business opportunity. But are the students right? Is there really a business case for selling ugly fruit and vegetables?
The students’ campaign is aimed at getting misshapen produce back into German households, explains Der Spiegel, encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices. Yet, they’re also looking at the supply side, not just the demand side, suggesting the idea of creating what they call “Ugly Fruits” supermarkets – trendy stores that would focus exclusively on selling misshapen produce and fruit rejected by other chains.
According to the Guardian, the students developed this concept after failed attempts to convince supermarket chains to sell ugly produce. “They told us customers don’t want ugly fruit, but that’s because customers are not familiar with it,” one of the students told the newspaper. “Of course people buy regular produce because that’s what they see on ads and posters. But we’re already getting emails asking when our first shop is opening.”
This is indeed the main question here – will people buy ugly fruit and vegetables? After all, if there’s no market for it, then there is no business case for this concept, no matter how sustainable it might look.
If you look at polls then it certainly looks like consumers might be interested. The Guardian mentions that according to a poll by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, “45 percent of Brits say the appearance of fruit and vegetables doesn’t matter. Some 26 percent would buy the cheapest option, and 10 percent say they would actively choose imperfect produce.”
As we know all too well, consumers’ attitudes and behavior can differ greatly when it comes to sustainability issues, so I was wondering if this is also the case here. While I couldn’t find any data approving or disproving the poll’s numbers, we do see a growing number of supermarket chains in the UK changing their standards on ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables.
Last year we reported on Sainsbury’s commitment to take 100 percent of British farmers’ crops, regardless of their appearance. The reason according to Sainsbury’s was that “unpredictable weather this season has left farmers and growers with bumper crops of ‘ugly’ looking fruit and vegetables with reported increases in blemishes and scarring.” It followed the steps of other chains like Waitrose and Tesco that made similar efforts, especially after the EU scrapped its produce laws that for years banned selling misshapen produce.
Still, I doubt many consumers, especially here in the U.S., would find ugly fruit desirable. The problem is that for years, supermarkets got consumers to adhere to certain aesthetics, where only fruit and vegetables that meet high visual standards are worthy and the rest is no good. Is it surprising then that so many of us tend to see ugly fruit and vegetables as low quality products and think that ugly means defective?
If you don’t believe we are that shallow, just think about this – according to NRDC’s report “most retail stores operate under the assumption that customers buy more from brimming, fully stocked displays, preferring to choose their apples from a towering pile rather than from a scantly filled bin.” In other words, consumers find it suspicious if a shelf is half-empty. We always expect it somehow to be full with fresh produce.
Therefore I believe that even if you discount ugly produce you won’t create a significant market for it, as it only validates the assumptions we have that ugly equals defective and most people would prefer not to buy it, being afraid that there’s something wrong with it. If we want to make ugly fruit attractive to most consumers we need a more radical change in perception. We need to change the myth behind ugly fruit.
It’s easier said than done, but the students’ idea of boutique stores selling ugly fruits to trendy customers might actually make sense as it can help rebrand ugly fruit, making it more desirable. Still, this is a first step – without the big supermarket chains adopting eventually ugly fruit you probably won’t see misshapen cucumbers or deformed carrots on the shelf in the near future.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.