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Book ReviewsComptes rendus critiques

Food Waste. Home Consumption, Material Culture and Everyday Life, David Evans, Bloomsbury, 2014, 119 p.

  • Jean-Philippe Laperrière

Corps de l’article

The author, David Evans, is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Senior Research Fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) of the University of Manchester. Prior to this appointment, he completed his Ph. D in Social Sciences at Cardiff University. His most recent work, Food Waste, is largely taken from his research as a post-doctoral fellow at SCI.

The author announces his intention at the very beginning of the book. In the prologue, he writes: “this book is concerned with how and why households end up wasting food that they have purchased of consumption” (xi). He uses two succinct examples to contextualize and explain his research. The first example tells the story of Sadie and her broccoli. She purchases this healthy vegetable on regular basis, without much thought, and usually it goes to waste for a number of reasons. The author’s second example is more personal. It is the story of a carton of Rubicon that was bought by mistake. As with the broccoli in the first example, this product will also go to waste. Evans is clear in his argument that food often goes to waste, but he also stresses that the reasons for this are not only limited to behaviours in individual households.

This short book is divided into eight parts. Each one presents a step-by-step analysis to further understand how food become waste. In the first chapter, the concept of “waste” is defined. He cites literature from a wide array of disciplines, such as classic work in anthropology (for instance, Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966), as well as more contemporary references, particularly those relating to his research group (SCI). He reviews of the current context of food waste using international reports, such as those provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the next chapter, he discusses theory: the “responsibilization” of the individual consumer; consumption and theories of practice. The aim of this theoretical overview is to examine the limits of official reports related to food waste. He also presents his ethnological approach, which studies 19 households. Acting as a sort of ‘fly on the wall’, he examines these households and how food waste is created in different environments.

The chapters 3 and 4 analyze household food consumption specifically. It seems clear that families buy too much food for a myriad of reasons: to ensure complete meals are eaten (vs. snackfood, for instance); for variety and freshness; and because of routine habits (which are related to consumption or purchasing habits). Evans makes clear that the retail practices of food markets do not always align with household needs, which, in turn, produces surplus. Other factors that could and should also be considered are: trying to please everyone’s palate (picky children, for instance); meal-planning; and food safety. As a food surplus can create waste, Evans indicates that this can also be a source of household anxiety.

In the next three chapters, Evans analyzes solutions related to food waste. He concludes that: “If surplus things become excess then they will be disposed of in ways that constitute them as waste” (61). Which means that food waste is the result of a process: eaters must, in some way, rationalize or make it acceptable that surplus food items become waste. Using topography as a lens, he adds to his analysis to see how food could be recycled. This might include making donations, sharing and exchanging food between neighbors, and reusing and composting food that cannot be eaten. However, these solutions are not suitable for everyone, as each individual household has its own constraints.

In his conclusion, Evans proposes a framework “to organize and position future studies of household food waste” (91). His model illustrates the different stages related to how surplus is transformed into waste. It also shows the weight of material and social factors, as well as the individual determinants of food waste. Finally, the model Evans proposes demonstrates the inherent anxiety of the food waste process. This framework makes a novel scientific contribution to the field and provides solutions to combat waste that align with what he has seen in his field research. By working on the individual, social and material levels of food waste, it will be possible to address this increasingly worrisome issue.

This book is interesting because it addresses several misconceptions about food waste. Its systemic perspective forces the reader to see the phenomenon as a whole, to proattenuate the tone of ‘guilt speech’ related to food waste, and to, instead, find concrete solutions to the problem. In addition, the microsociological perspective provides concrete examples to further understand the tensions with which eaters have to contend (i.e. eaters feeling ‘tugged’ in a variety of directions). Unfortunately, while the author is well-versed in the sociology of consumption, the impression here is that there is a lack of knowledge related to the sociology of food. Several concepts that have been mobilized in Food Studies could have found relevance here, including that of the omnivore’s paradox, the concept of magical thinking, and a further investigation of food-related fears.

Pour les lecteurs francophones, ce petit livre est particulièrement intéressant. À ma connaissance, il n’a pas d’équivalent en français. Le gaspillage est une thématique bien présente dans les travaux de recherches sur l’alimentation, mais il n’est pas analysé de cette façon. D’ordre général, il est présenté comme un corollaire de la modernité alimentaire bien qu’il soit aussi étudié en sciences de l’environnement de manière plus directe. C’est donc tout à l’honneur des Studies, plus répandues dans le monde anglo-saxon, d’utiliser cette approche pour rompre avec les préjugés et réfléchir autrement le gaspillage alimentaire. Les discours culpabilisants ne permettent pas d’appréhender la complexité des facteurs sociaux et matériels pour mieux comprendre et agir. L’alimentation n’est pas un produit de consommation comme les autres.

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