When I returned to London, I noticed how businesses applied expiration dating practices to food products and wondered whether this was for sustainability, marketing, health, safety, or perhaps other reasons. Whilst there are certainly many tinned or dry goods which are packaged and have an expiry date on them, I have used products beyond the expiry date on pasta and coffees with no complaints. For nonfoods, I have noticed expiry dates on battery packages, yet I have also continued to use the batteries beyond these dates with no ill effects. So perhaps it is for increasing sales.
However, it was on a Saturday night that I noticed something slightly different. It was after 20:00pm. I had realized that I hadn’t had dinner yet, and I wasn’t going to a restaurant or pub. Instead, I decided to pick up something quick from a local Marks & Spencer Food Hall. As I was walking through the aisles, I was surprised when I saw a crowd. At first, I thought it must have been an incognito film star, pop singer, or some other celebrity who had just been discovered or the start of a flash mob (which I was ready to join), but it was only a woman dressed in one of the various M&S black and green outfits. Yet she was drawing such a huge crowd with her pricing tool and yellow stickers! She was actively marking down sandwiches, salads, and other prepared foods before they reached their expiry date. So how could I pass up a sandwich that was marked down from 3.50 to only 45p? I noticed the same practice at the local Sainsbury and Tesco later that week. This seemed like a great way to minimise food waste and provide reasonably priced food to people.
I later went to Pret A Manger which started as a small shop in 1984 in Hampstead, but was sold and expanded until it is now international. At Pret, I noticed quite a different approach. In fact, Pret expressly noted that they did not mark down sandwiches at the end of the day. How could this be for a company that is so dedicated to handmade natural food and sustainability (http://www.pret.com/sustainability/about.htm)? I thought to myself that this was such a waste of edible foods that could have gone to the hungry. Then as part of their Sustainability Strategy, I later learned that they say “We’re committed to minimising waste at all stages of the supply chain, food production and sending zero waste to landfill from our shops.” Interestingly, they “operates a fleet of LPG vans that deliver over 12,000 fresh meals to numerous shelters for the homeless in London every week. Many charities across the UK collect directly from our shops at the end of each day too.” Pret further notes that it “donates around 2.5 million products to UK homeless charities every year, with the added bonus of ensuring our fresh natural food goes to the homeless at the end of the day and not to landfill. In fact, this prevents up to 250 tonnes of food from ending up in landfill.” (see at http://www.pret.com/sustainability/waste.htm). So instead of marking down sandiwches at the end of the day to make a sale, they appear to be spending monies to getting these “fresh” foods to people who need it.
I will confess that Pret’s comment about throwing away edible foods in a landfill as “being bad for the environment” has me torn between whether they should be more focused on feeding the hungry or avoiding a landfill. In particular, they say “Our goal is to avoid landfill at all costs; we know it’s bad for the environment, that they’re filling up fast and that they’re becoming increasingly expensive. Getting our recycling scheme bedded in is essential. We’ve rolled out front- and back-of-house recycling and we’ve been composting our organic waste for a number of years now.” If they can find a better balance in how they phrase these statements, I would feel that they are better focused.
When I compared the efforts to minimize waste of Marks & Spencer versus Pret A Manger, I wondered which one is “better” for sustainability. In the end, as much as I liked my 45p M&S sandwich, it seemed like Pret was really doing more of the right thing for the right reasons, as opposed to making the last pence out of a sandwich. Yet it seems M&S could also meet a social need, if the people who most needed the discounted sandwiches could buy them. Perhaps Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Tesco, and other markets could form a multi-stakeholder initiative and emulate Pret by donating to a single charity at the end of each day, which charity would then deliver those sandwiches to the needy? It would require coordination, but it could have better outcomes.