The problem of food waste at the consumer level
: exploring the social-spatial-temporal conditioning of practices in everyday life

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

The wastage of food continues to be an abhorrent global problem with households responsible for the majority of food waste in developed countries. The last decade has seen a surge in research exploring the wasteful behaviours of consumers. Yet studies have delivered limited headway due the primarily cognitive basis of work. Inconsistencies between attitudes, motivations and intensions, and the actual actions performed, have offered limited progress in moving towards
more sustainable consumption. Meanwhile consumers are failing to respond to behaviour change campaigns that target change through awareness of the food waste issue. As an alternative pathway, a practice turn in consumption studies has highlighted the merits of exploring the mundane, repetitive and everyday aspects of life. This has provided a greater capacity to unlock the visceral and compounded nature of food. However this emerging research arena is yet to provide a sufficient approach to comprehend the complexity of consumer food waste behaviours. Further understanding of why consumers are wasting such considerable amounts of food would benefit from an understanding of the contextual and circumstantial factors that are shaping consumption activities.

Through employing a theories of practice approach, this thesis makes a novel and important empirical and theoretical contribution. As an alternative to methodologically individualistic means of behavioural understanding, this thesis develops a practice conditioning framework, consisting of aspects framed in the social, spatial and temporal domains that bring to light circumstantial and contextual shaping of unsustainable consumption behaviours. Eight conditioning aspects are developed in total to facilitate understanding of what is shaping the performance of consumption practices. Drawing upon this framework, a UK study involving 23 households was undertaken. The methodology designed involved participant generated data collation over the course of a week. Participants took photos of food stored and used, collected receipts, provided food maps of their local area and household, and completed accounts of their weekly and morning routines. These methods were accompanied by in-depth semi-structured
interviews. The data presented a full picture of the rhythms of daily and weekly life giving insight into how, when and why food consumption practices were carried out and their direct and indirect links to food waste generation and mitigation.

The findings and adjoining discussion present a number intricacies that configure
consumption practices giving new insight into reasons for consumer food waste. Starting with social conditioning aspects, the findings show that food planning is resolved in different ways up until the point of mealtime. The body is shown to be a volatile platform of practice that can redirect and interrupt food performances leading to waste through instances such as unconventional storage justified via visceral norms. The spatial conditioning aspects illustrate how environmental cues and locational reference of objects within the home influence the dispositions that are part of how food is managed in the home. In contrast with other studies, the
presence and visibility of food was not found to be an effective trigger for food waste mitigation actions. For some households wasting food was demonstrated to be part of how the kitchen as a space was understood and constructed. The mobile nature of food consumption is also contended showing how the spatial remit over which food is provisioned is a conditioning factor. In terms of the temporal aspects, existing ideas around how greater organisation is key to preventing food waste were at odds with the ways in which participants’ lives featured disorder and disarray. The in-time, experiential nature of consumption revealed how consumers can be derailed from their typical food habits, implicating subsequent variation in food management and food wastage.

Overall, the conditioning framework enabled a critical analysis of how consumers’ patterns of living, and the interlinking consumption behaviours, unfold and shape how food comes to be wasted. This theoretical advancement provides a novel mechanism to conduct a practice analysis to provide a greater depth of knowledge on factors that are sustaining unsustainable behavioural traits and the identification of key points of change. Trends in practices and routines, rather than socio-demographic factors, provide a better picture of understanding food waste behaviours. The way in which households are co-ordinated was a key feature of the findings, acting as both a barrier to preventing wastage, as well as planning ahead to manage food more effectively. By providing these insights, studies of food waste at the consumer level must learn to critically engage with the wider contextual aspects that condition the routines, habits and rhythms of life. The thesis offers 11 key implications and puts forward a future research agenda.
Date of AwardJan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorMoya Kneafsey (Supervisor), Adrian Evans (Supervisor), Jason Begley (Supervisor) & Marylyn Carrigan (Supervisor)

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