Why does Denmark find it so easy to stop food waste? The country managed to reduce it by 25% over just five years, something close to a miracle. It’s cultural, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine. And Denmark’s startling waste reduction also a great example of how peer pressure is the best tool for social change
Writing in National Geographic, Jonathan Bloom gives a lot of credit to one person, Russian activist Selina Juul, who came to Denmark as a teenager, and noticed the contrast between the wasteful Danes, and the empty shelves of her home. Since starting Stop Wasting Food in 2008, Juul has been a catalyst for reducing food waste.
But the Danes themselves are, argues Bloom, culturally primed to make these changes. First, the country is small, and so it’s relatively easy both to spread the message, and to see the results of change close up. Also, sustainability is fashionable in Denmark. The Danish Princess Marie was at the opening of WeFood, a store that only sells food that other supermarkets are throwing out, for example. “Sustainability is trendy and Danes like to think of ourselves as a trendy bunch, so minimizing food waste is also a way of showing that,” Rikke Bruntse Dahl of the Copenhagen House of Food told National Geographic. Take a look at Too Good To Go, an app which matches customers with restaurants that are about to throw away food. Too Good To Go is from the U.K., but has found success in Denmark.
Another factor is cooking. Most Danes can and do cook. The idea of “cooking from scratch” as a separate category would seem alien in much of Europe, Denmark included. There it’s just called “cooking,” and it’s an everyday activity. When you combine this with a national tendency to frugality, you have the dry tinder needed to touch off a fast revolution.
Consumer demand then drives businesses to change. The big supermarket chains–REMA 1000, Coop, and LIDL–“no longer offer quantity discounts that entice shoppers to overbuy, and many stores have ‘stop food waste areas’ with discounted offerings nearing their best-by date,” writes Bloom.
Europeans also eat less, have smaller refrigerators, and city-dwellers are more likely to shop regularly, buying small amounts, than they are to load up at an out-of-town store once a month. All of these conditions together make for a country that can change relatively quickly.
The speedy Danish move to eliminate food waste also exposes the real agents of almost all social change–peer pressure, and taboo. Drinking and driving was driven out not by law, but because it became socially unacceptable. The same is happening for smoking now. In countries with proper smoking bans, the habit is now seen as an ignorant one. And one look at Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen shows what can happen when cars are seen as undesirable.
Now food waste is going the same way, in Denmark at least. Repeating the trick elsewhere may be a little harder.