Selling surplus food as a solution to food waste
: understanding how businesses selling surplus food commercially can be adopted by consumers and reduce food waste

  • Lisa Ruetgers

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Globally, considerable amounts of edible food (surplus food) are wasted while at the same time the world faces issues such as resource depletion, climate change and food poverty. Wasting food means wasting resources, including water, land and energy, and creates pollution. In developed countries, most food waste happens at the end of the supply chain at food service businesses, retailers and households. This study investigated businesses selling surplus food from retailers and restaurants commercially to consumers as potential solutions to food waste. These business models are based on the circular economy, which encourages the treatment of waste as a resource, and thus fosters sustainable development via degrowth, a reduction in resource consumption.

    While scholars have explored the charitable and non-commercial redistribution of surplus food, the commercial sale of unprocessed surplus food remained under-investigated, despite its potential to reduce food waste, resource consumption and food poverty. The aim of this research was to understand how businesses selling surplus food commercially to consumers can be adopted and reduce food waste. To investigate this real world phenomenon, case study research has been conducted with three cases representing two different business models in two countries each. One such business model is represented by surplus supermarkets in the UK and Denmark that acquire surplus food from retailers and food producers and sell it cheaply to consumers. The second business model is an app, also operating in the UK and Denmark, enabling restaurants, cafés and bakeries to sell their surplus food to consumers at the end of their service. Using the theory of diffusion of innovation as theoretical framework and a phenomenological approach, factors affecting the adoption of the case businesses were determined based on the perceptions of consumers and business representatives.

    This research contributes to knowledge by developing the surplus food sale theory which outlines the factors influencing the, so far under-investigated, commercial sale of surplus food and its capability to reduce food waste. Consumers’ perceptions of unprocessed surplus food and the businesses selling it, the contextual factors affecting those perceptions and the factors influencing the development of the case businesses have been revealed. Consumers’ social circumstances influence their engagement with the case businesses, which need to provide an attractive product range and atmosphere to acquire customers. The case businesses reduce food waste and support degrowth, as most surplus food was sold, consumed and substituted purchases of regular products to some extent. Marketers and policy makers can use these new insights to enhance the sale of surplus food and the reduction of food waste and resource consumption.

    Furthermore, this study shows that surplus food has a market value with price and convenience being the main drivers for consumers to buy surplus food. Therefore, surplus food should not be considered as waste and non-saleable by manufacturers, retailers and restaurants. Those industries should apply the knowledge provided by this study to sell their surplus food. The theory of diffusion of innovation, in particular in combination with perceptual phenomenology, proved to be a useful tool to understand potential solutions to food waste while its application in food waste research represents a novelty.
    Date of AwardAug 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMaureen Meadows (Supervisor) & Jordon Lazell (Supervisor)

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