Is technology the recipe for cutting food waste?

Globally, about a third of all the food produced for human consumption every year is wasted – roughly 1.3 billion tonnes – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Consumers in richer countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) each year as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). This equates to around 100kg per person, per year, wasted by consumers in Europe and North America.

The percentage of food directly wasted by consumers, as opposed to earlier in the production process, also increases in line with a country’s wealth – with North American consumers accounting for roughly 40% of the total wastage. This is particularly shocking, considering the wider environmental and socio-economic costs – with the increased financial cost to the consumer being the tip of the slowly melting iceberg.

This all makes for depressing reading. But when the numbers are this large, even incremental improvements have the potential to make a huge positive impact. For example, it is estimated that confusion arising from food labelling costs families up to $29 billion annually in the US. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are ongoing efforts by the Consumer Goods Forum, supported by global fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands, to drive improvements in standardising food labelling to make use-by dates simpler for consumers to understand by 2020. This feels like a good place to start – but how do we take better control and management of our own food? Can technology save us from ourselves?

There are many available technologies to help address this problem and provide benefits to consumers, retailers and producers. But selecting the right technology is one of the key challenges. One potential solution is to provide a greater level of information on the status of food on the shelf and in the home through the use of smart, connected devices. Samsung has invested in this vision of the future of stock control with its camera-enabled Family Hub fridge – capturing information on its contents and uploading it to the cloud. It’s an expensive purchase for consumers right now –  but expect prices to drop over the next few years as competitors catch up. However, although a connected fridge is an interesting concept and a step towards a connected future, the embodiment is missing the link to the food producers, the ordering process and the grocery stores themselves.

In time, the tiny Amazon Dash button may be seen as an early data point on the revolution in shopping practices. But it is really just the beginning when it comes to convenient, frictionless reordering. Hopefully the future is far more expansive than a button that allows a family pack of toilet rolls to be ordered and arrive the following day. Technologies which can combine the reordering with the monitoring of in-home stock levels and usage profiles have the potential to provide a new dimension to convenience and time saving. This information can be employed in-store to improve shelf replenishment or help with warehouse restocking, and a combined system would be able to suggest when food appears to be selling too slowly – to allow a supermarket to dynamically price food and avoid wastage.

Perhaps another approach is to focus more on the broader requirement to monitor products not only in the home but also in-store. Consider a future where inventory management solutions extend beyond the visual, instead incorporating low-cost sensors that allow tracking of individual products as they are picked or restocked. In the home, with product awareness a future kitchen could suggest interesting new recipe ideas, based on its knowledge of the quantity (and best-before dates) of food on the shelves and in the fridge. This also opens up further opportunities in the connected health space – allowing meals to be tailored to dietary requirements and lifestyle.

Here at Cambridge Design Partnership we have a wealth of expertise in developing system architectures and smart packaging in the connected space. Coupled with our user insights and FMCG brand innovation teams, we’re able to help clients navigate the often complex journey that leads to being better connected with consumers.

If you’d like us to help unpack your inventory management challenges, get in touch via Or talk to our user insights and inventory management experts at the Global Innovation Forum in London on 1-2 November. They will also be doing a keynote presentation with one of our global cosmetics clients at the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association (AIPIA) Congress in Amsterdam on 2-3 November.