In 2013, Tesco became the first UK supermarket to publish food waste figures. Now, they have persuaded 27 own-brand suppliers to release figures as well as receiving assurances from 10 big-brand suppliers that they will start doing so. However, despite outward signs of action, Tesco’s figures have been showing an increase rather than decrease in food waste. So, are they a true hero, or a bit of a fake?

Dave Lewis

The main character in Tesco’s tale is a passionate advocator for decreasing food waste, having chaired Champions 12.3, the coming together of business, government and civil society to facilitate achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal of halving food waste, and spoke at the Global Summit of Consumer Goods Forum. Lewis’ speeches call for businesses to do more to tackle food waste, saying published figures show where efforts need to be focused, and that only by working together can they meet the SDG. Sometimes this gets condensed to “Target, Measure, Act” which emphasises a need to understand where food is wasted before tackling it.

The Figures

Unfortunately, just after Lewis gave this speech in 2016 at Champions 12.3, that year’s figures showed Tesco’s food waste had risen to 59,400t from 55,400t. In 2017/18, although food waste was back down at 53,126t, they failed to meet their 2-year target, seeing food waste increase by over 6000t.

Figure 1 (Tesco PLC)

Figures come directly from Tesco, so at least we know they are being honest with us. Plus, they are the only UK store to have an independent analysis done of their food waste figures and this showed that Tesco had at least managed to meet 64% of its aim  in waste reduction. In this sense we can say that they are improving, but taking longer than expected to do so.


Positives focused on are the usages of food waste because, since 2009, no food has gone to landfill. They avoid this by donating to charities or giving to staff, sending baked goods to be made into animal feed, and converting chicken fat and cooking oil into biodiesel. This may sound good, but the biggest way they utilise food waste is by recovering energy through anaerobic digestion or incineration [figure 2]. Yes, this makes use of food waste so it is not releasing methane in landfill, but anaerobic digestion and incineration are not environmentally sound either and it is huge amounts of food that could have been consumed earlier on in the cycle.

Figure 2 (Tesco PLC)

Tesco are also proud of avoidance initiatives like Perfectly Imperfect, which has seen 68million portions of fruit and veg sold that would have been wasted otherwise, selling bumper crops at reduced prices, and packaging that keeps food fresher for longer. The majority of initiatives affect fresh, healthy foods because Lewis says this is most wasted at 800,000t annually. They are also attempting to reduce consumer waste by promoting everyday low prices rather than bulk-buy deals.

Community Food Connection

By 2017, Tesco’s redistribution programme had donated approximately 10 million meals to over 5400 charities. Today, all UK stores donate surplus food through the programme compared to 111 stores in 2016. This means that the amount of donations made is also rising, doubling from 2303t in 2016 to 5700t in 2017 and now donations sit at 7975t [figure 2]. This is 5040t more than the next-best redistributing supermarket, Sainsbury’s.

Charities decide what they wish to take and any food that they do not take is offered to Tesco staff in ‘colleague shops’. The programme is run in conjunction with FareShare who use FoodCloud to advertise the estimated unsold, good quality food. Local charities and community groups that are signed up receive a text informing them of food available and they collect that which they are able to utilise. The partnership with FareShare allows charities to be centrally matched with the right store and donations typically range from 1-4 trays of food.

feeback supermarket scores
Figure 3 (FeedBack)

Top of the Pile 

Tesco has seen a 40% increase in food redistributed to people in need over the last year which, according to Feedback, is one of the reasons why Tesco leads UK Supermarkets in tackling food waste. They are also praised for being the first to publish third-party audited data, the first to commit to SDG 12.3, and committed to extending transparency to suppliers. Waitrose is the worst according to Feedback because it provides no public data on food waste, redistribution is limited, as is work with suppliers, and they have no programme for sending surplus to animal feed – a stage that comes above anaerobic digestion in the food use hierarchy [see figure 4] used by Feedback and agreed by UK supermarkets.

Figure 4 (FeedBack)


Tesco recognise that anaerobic digestion is not a reduction of waste in the same way that redistribution or animal feed is since these allow food to be consumed which is why they come first in the hierarchy. However, redistribution is not as cost effective for businesses as anaerobic digestion hence why FareShare is asking the government for a £15million fund to assist redistribution efforts.

It is not enough for Tesco to just recognise this problem. As the leading UK food business in tackling food waste, they must put their money where their mouth is and commit to redistribution which could happen earlier on when surplus is received. They also still call it “food waste” even when it is edible enough to donate for human consumption. This term connotes ‘inedible’ and therefore stigmatises it. If it were simply referred to as ‘surplus’ more of it might head down the donation path rather than to energy recovery. Despite leading the pack, Tesco could take tips such as selling past ‘best before dates’ (Co-op) which might reduce the initial waste figures and remove stigmas.

The hero who led others into battle has stalled by focusing on getting them involved and now needs the other characters to step up to the plate so that they can return to tackling their own food waste.