Thirty years ago, buying, eating and cooking with ‘wonky’ fruit and veg was the preserve of the hyper-health conscious and those lucky enough to live near a farmer’s market. For the rest of us, buying our food at the supermarket meant straight orange carrots and standard-sized spuds.
But as time’s gone by, our attitudes towards imperfect produce have shifted. In fact, there have been multiple revolutions: a surge in interest from a sustainability standpoint, and now, most recently, a reinvention of the category as convenient and – dare we say it – cool. As the new year gets underway, it feels like a good time to explore these new attitudes towards wonky fruit and veg, and to discuss what the future holds for grocers, brands and consumers.
“If food waste was a country, it would contribute more annual carbon emissions than any other besides China and the US.”
It’s long been an open secret in the grocery industry that a staggering one-third of food goes to waste globally. If food waste was a country, it would contribute more annual carbon emissions than any other besides China and the US. A large portion of this waste happens in the home, but much can be attributed to stringent buying guidelines from major grocers, whose aesthetic standards reinforce misconceptions about what food should look like and result in tonnes of produce being discarded before it’s even reached the shelves.
But this hasn’t always been common knowledge. “When we started in 2010, the concept of food waste was a really hippy notion,” said Jenny Costa, founder and CEO at Rubies in the Rubble, which makes chutneys and condiments out of surplus produce. Indeed, early veg box businesses like Abel & Cole – which has been providing customers with wonky, farm-fresh produce for decades – initially sold their propositions on their health benefits rather than any anti-food waste or sustainability credentials.
But in the 2010s, as the world seemingly started to wake up to the imminent threat of climate change, tackling food waste became a significant part of our sustainability efforts – and more and more people began buying, selling, and using wonky fruit and veg. Around the world, veg boxes grew in popularity, partnering with farmers to collect and sell produce that didn’t meet supermarket guidelines. In the UK, ODDBOX was founded, while in the US, venture-backed companies like Imperfect Produce, Misfits Market and Full Harvest sprung up to provide seasonal products.
Even the supermarkets got involved. Asda introduced a wonky veg box in 2016, Lidl rolled out its ‘Too Good To Waste’ offering in 2019 and Tesco’s ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ range has saved 50 million packs of fruit and vegetables since its launch five years ago. We also saw the emergence of exciting new brands which utilised the surplus produce, like Rubies in the Rubble, ChicP and Toast Ale.
But so far, so familiar. In the past few years, we’ve noticed another, more subtle shift in the way people think and talk about wonky fruit and veg. When once irregular produce was for ‘saving’, today it is recognised as the healthier, more convenient and more desirable choice. Fresh veg boxes are no longer only for the hyper climate-conscious, but favoured by lifestyle influencers who share their week’s haul on Instagram.
Christine Cross, chair at ODDBOX, reiterated this when we caught up with her before Christmas. “We launched in 2016, and lots of our initial customers were vegan or had a real interest in climate change,” she told us. “But now, more and more people are seeing the convenience element. If we deliver you a box of fruit and veg, some of which you won’t have seen before, as well as some delicious recipes to cook, then that’s convenient for you.”
“We launched in 2016, and lots of our initial customers were vegan or had a real interest in climate change, but now, more and more people are seeing the convenience element. If we deliver you a box of fruit and veg, some of which you won’t have seen before, as well as some delicious recipes to cook, then that’s convenient for you.” – Christine Cross, chair at ODDBOX
Covid-19 has certainly had a role to play here, giving rise to a boom in home cooking which helped ODDBOX’s revenue grow six-fold in 2020. “I think the majority of customers are people who have enjoyed having the time to do scratch cooking again,” Christine reflected. “It’s broadened horizons around how they eat and what they cook.”
Indeed, broadening horizons sits at the heart of many businesses which tackle food waste. Jenny Costa, founder and CEO at Rubies in the Rubble, told us that her mission is to change attitudes around what it means to be sustainable. “We saw it in LA with plastic bags,” she explained. “When celebrities started using tote bags, people thought: ‘ok, that’s the cool thing to do’. The same thing’s happened with bringing your own cup to a coffee shop. We need to get to a point with food waste where leaving a restaurant with a doggy bag isn’t seen as penny pinching, it’s seen as an educated and environmental choice.” Indeed, Emilie Vanpoperinghe, co-founder of ODDBOX, told me that only 30% of people currently recognise the link between food waste and climate change – but that food waste has been identified as the most addressable part of fighting global warming.
Another startup using surplus produce is DASH Water, which makes flavoured sparkling water using ‘misfit’ fruit. DASH’s proposition is indicative of the way we think about wonky fruit and veg today: rescuing surplus produce is not its USP, but adds to the brand’s overall identity as climate conscious and current. We caught up with Jack Scott, who co-founded DASH in 2016. “We have this message around food waste but it’s not why someone will pick up the product,” he told us. “It’s an extra layer that says we’re conscious of the environment and trying to do things properly. It helps us gain brand advocacy with consumers and drives loyalty versus other brands.”
Looking ahead, we hope that consumer attitudes towards food waste and wonky veg continue to evolve, as brands gain traction and it becomes aspirational to make sustainable choices. We’ve seen this happen with Veganuary – taking part has moved from a fundamental lifestyle choice to something of a status symbol from those looking to boost their health and lower their impact on the planet.
“I think there’ll be lots of innovation, driven by founders and creators of small businesses. I get very excited to see small brands having an influence, and to see big brands change the way they produce or the ingredients they use.” – Jenny Costa, CEO at Rubies in the Rubble
“I’m excited for the future,” reflected Jenny Costa, “and I think there’ll be lots of innovation, driven by founders and creators of small businesses. I get very excited to see small brands having an influence, and to see big brands change the way they produce or the ingredients they use.” Christine Cross seconded this point, pointing to the collective of ethical, forward-thinking businesses that are emerging and continue to emerge. “We will have a virtuous community of businesses that are all trying to move this forward… there’s enough scope for everyone in this.”
Exciting businesses such as those highlighted here are helping to challenge our perception of food and encourage more sustainable consumer behaviours. Emilie pointed out that for so many years we have been increasingly demand-led – but should we be thinking more about eating what is available? This seismic shift to supply-led consumerism is a gigantic challenge, but the increasing popularity of ethical brands and the motivation of future generations could well see us on that journey. What do you think the future holds for the category? Do let us know… we’d love to hear from you.