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Waste Not, Want Not: Thanksgiving and the Food Waste Conundrum

Posted by Janie Ryan | November 20, 2017

For most of us, Thanksgiving is a time to reconnect with family and celebrate abundance. For big grocery chains, it means anxiously overseeing a network of suppliers and shippers as they move vital ingredients across the country (and around the world), all while working in tricky weather that demands solid logistical execution to avoid late - or spoiled - deliveries. Grocery retailers always risk losing precious inventory, but never is it more critical to receive the right foods at the right time than during Thanksgiving week. Instead of hoping that their pumped-up stocks of turkey and pumpkin pie arrive intact and on time, grocery chains avoid supply chain disaster by overstocking many of these key items and running tried-and-true marketing gimmicks to flood their aisles with shoppers. While it ensures that Thanksgiving continues to be a celebration of plenty, concerns about food waste and changing consumer preferences are posing new challenges to this model. Increasingly, food retailers are making their Thanksgiving supply chains more efficient, prioritizing sustainability, freshness, and satisfied customers without compromising profit.


This Thanksgiving 200 million pounds of turkey meat will be thrown away. The statistic might be surprising, but the holiday isn’t the only time Americans are responsible for large-scale food waste. Each year America throws out about a third of its food, and 10 percent of that waste occurs at the retail level. But that’s not the whole story. The National Resources Defence Council states that “through their influence both up and down the supply chain, retailers actually are responsible, at least in part, for a much bigger proportion of total losses.” Because in-store promotions and bulk sales persuade shoppers to purchase beyond what they need, waste is encouraged at the consumer level. Moreover, looking lower on the supply chain, suppliers often overproduce to fulfil their contractual obligations to retailers, often failing to find last-minute buyers for their leftover stock.

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All this food going into the garbage is not just an unfortunate side-effect of an established business model - it is a product of what some are calling a flawed and unsustainable system. Landfills emit 20 percent of the world’s methane, and in the US discarded food takes up a lot of landfill real estate. Scaling down waste is important not only for reducing harmful methane emissions (one of the biggest contributors to climate change). It is also a way to ensure that increasingly precious land and freshwater resources aren’t wasted by producing food that ends up in the dump.

How can retailers avert waste this year? Offering surplus inventory at bargain rates is a sure way to salvage post-holiday profits and mitigate waste. Stores might be hardpressed to sell discounted birds to families just awaking from their turkey comas, but shoppers will be thankful for discounts on other perishables after blowing their budgets on supplies for the holiday. Some large retailers have tweaked the age-old “buy one get one free” promotion to maintain profit while taking the pressure off of consumers to buy more than they can use. UK-based Tesco implements a “buy one get one later” program.

On the supply chain side, improved forecasting of demand can help retailers modify their orders for particular items and avoid overstocking. Such strategies and their payoffs (both for businesses and the environment) are not to be taken lightly. In 2012 it was announced that New England-based grocery chain Stop and Shop was able to cut $100 million in costs by implementing food-waste reduction policies. Most notably, the chain found that their customers reacted more positively to smaller displays of fresh produce than to the overflowing displays preferred by other food retailers. Since 2016 the chain has also been converting food waste to sustainable fuel for its distribution center in Massachusetts. Businesses that want to put their surpluses towards a good (and tax-deductible) cause can also connect with companies like Copia and Waste No Food, platforms that redistribute surplus items to food banks.


You did the math - if retailers are wasting 10 percent of food, what about the other 90 percent? If you guessed that consumers are the biggest culprits, you’re correct. A whopping 44 percent of wasted food is accounted for by households. Authorities say food waste by individuals peaks during Thanksgiving, when in-store promotions and the pressure to provide for everyone often leads to massive amounts of leftovers - and eventual waste. Thirty-five percent of turkey meat is thrown away every year in the US, the bulk of that occurring during Thanksgiving. This is a good indication that the motto “waste not want not” goes out the window when it comes to cherished holidays. For consumers looking to reduce Thanksgiving waste or those doing damage control after the festivities are over, it’s best to have a game plan. Taking inventory before heading to the grocery store, letting guests serve themselves, and becoming best friends with your freezer are all sure ways to reduce waste during and after the holiday. Donating leftovers to a local food bank is another way to free yourself of turkey accoutrements while giving another family something to be thankful for.


The coming-of-age of a new, environmentally conscious generation of Thanksgiving shoppers will require that food retailers rethink their stocking and marketing strategies, not only for the season but year-round. With consumer preferences trending towards fresh foods with transparent supply chains, businesses will need to focus more on product quality than simply moving product with promotions. With concerns rising about the cost of industrial and household food waste, retailers who demonstrate social responsibility may very well end up ahead of the pack.