Subconscious and affective determinants of food waste behaviour


Much of the retail food industry relies on consumers buying large amounts of fresh produce to last them until they next shop. Indeed, fresh food supply chains and packaging have now improved such that fresh food is still nutritious to consume over longer time periods. Yet, research suggests that consumers throw away food that no longer looks fresh even though it is still nutritious (Jaeger et al., 2018). We propose that this is due to emotions and subconscious goals rather than a rational decision-making process in which the consumer is aware of the nutritional value. This is a problem because the growing awareness of the climate consequences of food waste might change shopping habits with obvious knock-on effects to the food industry.

Our project aims to conduct a preliminary study with UK consumers to explore the interactions between personal values and emotions, and their influence on consumers’ eating (wasting) decisions at home, with particular emphasis on fresh produce. Our goal is to engage with practitioner and international academic partners to submit a large grant application that helps government agencies and the retail food industry to reduce food waste at household and retail levels. The objectives of the project are as follows:

  • Assessing consumers’ values around food consumption and waste with Schwartz value survey (2012); examining consumers’ affective responses, particularly guilt and disgust, with survey questions from previous research (e.g., Russell, Young, & Unsworth, 2017); and assessing the interaction between personal values and emotions, and their influence on consumers’ eating (wasting) decisions.
  • Positioning ourselves for a large grant application with practitioner Co-I’s from government agencies (e.g., WRAP) and large food retailers (e.g., ASDA), as well as internationally renowned academic collaborators from overseas (see potential funding sources for particular names).

Visual perceptions of the quality of fresh produce (e.g., external and internal defects) play an important role in consumers’ decisions during shopping and consuming at home. Both decisions may result in food waste either at the retail store or at home. It has been demonstrated that domestic food waste in developed countries is largely due to uneaten produce (e.g., Conrad et al., 2018), and large retailers waste more fresh produce than smaller outlets (Cicatiello et al, 2016). Efforts to reduce food waste in households and retailers will have significant impact on environmental and economic costs, particularly in light of global challenges such as climate change and a predicted 60% increase in demand for food by 2050 due to the increasing world population (FAO, 2013).

Research on the determinants of consumer food waste behavior and interventions for green behavior change have largely focused on cognitive factors (see Russell et al., 2017; Davis, Russell & Unsworth, 2019) indicating the need for further research on affective determinants, particularly guilt and disgust (Russell et al.,  2017). Another stream of research has focused on subconscious goals (e.g., personal values) as the basis of pro-environmental behavior and environmentalism (e.g., Unsworth & McNeill, 2018; Unsworth et al., 2013). Very few studies have focused on the interactions between values and emotions (Tamir et al., 2016), and their influence on people’s perceptions (Kaptan et al, 2013;), yet there is some indication from related research that affect and cognitions have strong combined effects (e.g., Brewer et al., 2016).

Our  project will address this need by examining the interactions between emotions and values, and their influence on domestic food waste.