Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal is a celebrity chef on a quest to reduce food waste and has embarked on an audacious journey to cajole grocery retailers into buying and selling what he calls “wonky vegetables.” Here is why Hugh has embarked on his quest.
Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted says the United Nations Environment Programme. And, the implications of food waste are not just financial. Rotting food also creates methane – a seriously harmful greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change. According to UNEP Methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Astonishingly, consumers in developed countries waste almost as much food as the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa. In the UK alone almost 50% of all wasted food comes from households who throw out a massive seven million tonnes of food and drink each year. This means the average UK household wastes up to £700 per year making a cumulative total of £12.5bn. The United States is no better with US$48.3 billion worth of food being thrown away each year. Imagine if this money could be put to better use, how might that change the world?
In my new book Quest: Competitive Advantage and the Art of Leadership in the 21st Century; I explore how successful leaders are embarking on quests to change their world and how their actions are leading to not only distinctive competitive advantages but are also improving the world. I show how quests are the force propelling humankind forward and how today, because of unparalleled access to technology, the democratisation of information and social media, anyone can embark on a quest to change the world. Quest are no longer the domain of a nobility and a privileged few. Leaders who get this shift are disrupting industries and emerging with unprecedented speed as market leaders. The power of the leaders’ quest is now within grasp of anyone. All you need is courage, conviction, creativity and a crazy belief that anything is possible.
Waging war on waste is a monumental task, so I like how Hugh is approaching the challenge by breaking it down into a bite size chunk and focusing on the wonky veg. In doing this he captures the spirit and the essence of the leaders’ quest I wrote about in the book.
Not every quest is designed to change the world on some grand scale. Quests can be big or small; personal or professional. The commonality is the leaders’ focus on embarking on quests that improve their immediate world, the world they influence. Stephen Covey, talks about how great leaders focus their efforts on their Circle of Influence, as this is the area where each leader has the ability to have the greatest impact.
We all have concerns, in Hugh’s case he is concerned about food waste and the contribution it has to world hunger and environmental damage. Rather than focus on the broader Circle of Concern though – which typically results in leadership paralysis – he has honed in on his Circle of Influence, the area where he can have the greatest impact. Hugh’s circle of influence is the grocery stores and the consumers he reaches as celebrity chef. This is the first step in the leaders’ quest – identifying your key concerns and aligning them with where you can have the greatest impact.
My research into the power of leadership quests revealed three qualities.
The First Quality of Quest – Delivering Meaningful Benefits.
Within his Circle of Influence, Hugh discovered that grocery retailers are rejecting up to 40% of the produce from farmers because they do not meet retailers’ cosmetic standards. “Watching 20 tonnes of freshly dug parsnips consigned to the rubbish heap in a Norfolk farmyard – purely because they didn’t look pretty enough – is still one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen” says Hugh. This inspired him to wage a war for the “wonky veg.”
In recent years consumers have been programmed to believe that unless a carrot or parsnip is arrow straight it should be deemed not good enough for our tables even though from a taste and nutrition perspective there is nothing wrong with wonky veg. Retailers know they can charge more for handsome cosmetic looking vegetables and they have positioned the perfect veg as the only veg suitable for esteemed dinner plate.
However, this means that farmers have to throw away tons of produce because retailers will not buy vegetables or fruit with even slight blemishes. This crazy practice artificially raises the prices that consumers pay grocers and reduces the farmers’ revenues as up to 40% of their produce is deemed by the buyers of larger grocery retailers as unfit. One weeks waste of wonky veg is not just a “few sacksful of parsnips, it’s not a skip-load. It’s a colossal mountain of them – enough to fill nearly 300 shopping trolleys. And, more importantly perhaps, to feed 100,000 people with a generous portion of roast parsnips” says Hugh; “to get the full annual figure – four million parsnip portions that could, but won’t, get eaten.”
Raising awareness of grocery tactics, shifting consumer habits and pressuring retailers to offer a fair trade to farmers for their wonky veg will deliver meaningful benefits thus meeting the first quality and criteria of a quest.
The Second Quality of Quest – Striving to Achieve the Impossible
Large grocers have spent a lot of money convincing consumers that only the perfect veg is good for them and for the large part consumers now believe this retail propaganda. Convincing consumers and grocers to shift their behaviour is not an easy task. The war for the wonky veg is a crazy perhaps even impossible endeavour. But achieving the quest, getting grocers to stock and consumers to buy wonky veg will have a positive benefit for society so it’s a war worth waging. Hugh hits the second quality and criteria for a quest smack dead centre.
The Third Quality of Quest is having an inspirational and clear target destination
This questing quality is perhaps the most important as it motivates and inspires fellow questers to take up the charge. Without a clear, objective and outcome-focused destination, any quest becomes meaningless meandering. Every household can do their little bit to reduce food waste. Buying less food, not throwing away food that has reached its ‘sell by’ date are two simple solutions that will help. And, we can also encourage retailers by buying wonky veg. These actions are easily controllable within our own personal world of influence.
Having a clear outcomes based destination mobilises consumers and supporters of the poor, ridiculed and suppressed wonky veg. The destination is the end goal, it empowers, motivates and inspires. Hugh’s quest is clear, inspirational and outcome focused meeting the criteria of great quests.
You can get your copy of Quest: Competitive Advantage and the Art of Leadership in the 21st Century from Amazon in Kindle ebook and printed version
If you are interested in learning more about how Quest can inspire your personal, leadership and organisational strategy contact Dean van Leeuwen