Last Christmas I was served a duck dinner of which the gravy, the potatoes and the duck itself (upmarket breast portions, individually packaged) had all been sitting in a bin 24 hours earlier. It fed about twelve of us too.
Admittedly, we weren't always that lucky. Three bin bags full of pastries might sound fun, and they were for a bit - strapping them to Umar’s bike and weaving home on the way back from the pub - but then they turned into a big, stale, flaky mess on the kitchen counter and stayed that way for a long while after (freegans find it hard to throw food away, it goes with the territory). On the other hand we once found twelve loaves of bread (freezable) in the bins behind Tesco Metro, and then at least twelve packs of bacon from behind One Stop two weeks later. Even the vegetarians could get on board with that - bacon’s ethical when it comes from a bin.
The tide is turning on food waste. There has been a growing worldwide recognition of how much we are wasting - 100m tonnes per year in Europe alone - and the thought of all that wasted food has made us hungry for change. In France it is now illegal for supermarkets to throw away unsold food, and legal pressure is mounting in Italy. Meanwhile organisations like the Real Junk Food Project, the Skipchen and the Brixton People’s Kitchen have taken action on the ground, raising awareness by actively recycling food and using it to help communities, protesting hunger by feeding people.
But freeganism - or bin-raiding to those in the business - is about more than food waste. There is a rebellion to it, the gleeful freedom of getting something for free in a world where everything costs money, the guilt-free satisfaction of eating without your money contributing to factory farming, or GM, or monocropping, and at its core a symbolic rejection of branding - the smiling face of capitalism gone wrong. Four perfectly round apples in a cardboard tray, wrapped in cellophane and called ‘Premium’ (Iceland); a billion pound market in fine wine, despite the fact that wine experts routinely fail to sniff out £5 bottles in blind taste tests; Morrisons introducing ‘misting machines’ to their fruit and veg displays (abandoned in 2015). We don't want what you’re selling.
And yet, as mainstream culture catches on, branding is driving change. 2016 has been (amongst other things) the year of the ‘Wonky Veg’ - first Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall waged a War On Waste by making a big pile of rejected parsnips, then Morrisons, Tescos, Asda and Sainsbury’s rolled out a series of rival PR campaigns celebrating food that is ‘beautiful on the inside’. The appetite for change has spread all the way to the top; the big dogs have come to the table.
There is an important lesson here. These companies are not evil, they are just groups of people doing their jobs, stuck in their ways, making as much money as possible. If we are to influence big business practices - to introduce a social profit motive - we need to make change digestible for them: to demonstrate public consensus on the ground; pressurise politicians; scrutinise in the media and, crucially, brand change in a way that shows them how they can benefit from doing things differently.
This is not just a sandwich, this a Taste the Difference, Sainsbury’s wheelie bin, organic BLT on rye - box a bit slimy, two days past its sell by date but still fresh!
Jack Davies is a Project Executive at London Leadership Strategy