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The average Canadian household wastes between 500 to 750 grams of food per person a day, or about $1,500 a year, an Ivey Business School study found. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
The average Canadian household wastes between 500 to 750 grams of food per person a day, or about $1,500 a year, an Ivey Business School study found. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Business school research

Canadians waste seven billion kilograms of food a year Add to ...

The Globe’s roundup of research from business schools.

The next time you clean out your fridge, pause a moment to consider what you are throwing away. That half-empty can of tuna with beads of moisture forming under the cellophane, the carton of raspberries covered with mould and last week’s watery leftovers are likely costing you big bucks.

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Canadians waste a lot of food. It starts at the farm field and continues across the food production chain to processors, distributors, retailers, restaurants and consumers. But it is this last group – Canadian households – that account for more than half of all wasted food, according to a report by professor David Sparling and postdoctoral research associate Nicoleta Uzea at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont. (Martin Gooch, adjunct professor at the University of Guelph, also contributed to the study.)

The report, based on a literature review of previous studies and interviews with farmers, processors and consumers, found that the amount of food wasted in Canada in a single year totals more than seven billion kilograms and is valued at $27-billion. The average Canadian household wastes between 500 to 750 grams of food per person a day, or about $1,500 a year. “It’s a lot of money,” Dr. Sparling says.

It can be blamed, in part, on consumer eating and shopping habits. Consumers are accustomed to having access to a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round at comparatively low prices. “We’re pretty spoiled in expecting perfect food all the time,” Dr. Sparling says. This leads people to be less thoughtful when it comes to menu planning and to purchase more than they need.

But, he adds, the waste starts long before the food reaches the family table, with farmers who discard oddly-shaped fruits and vegetables because grocery stores won’t stock them. “This is a systems problem,” he says. Because the losses are spread across stakeholders and are more or less manageable, people aren’t inclined to do much about it.

The report was prepared for the Provision Coalition, an advocacy group for the food and beverage industry, and is available on its website. It also points out that Canada lags behind some other jurisdictions when it comes to reducing food waste.

So what can we do about it? Consumers can stop being so picky, Dr. Sparling suggests. “That’s a hard thing for us to do because we’ve been trained to buy really good looking fresh fruit and vegetables,” he admits.

Menu planning and more frequent shopping trips can also make a difference. Canada also needs farmers, processors and retailers to work together to find alternative uses for foods that would otherwise end up in the recycling bin. But, perhaps the most important thing they can do is track how much food they discard and what it costs them, he says. That might be the nudge they need to do something about it.

Group gatherings inflame passions

Who can forget the anguished faces of Brazilian soccer fans as their team went down to defeat in the World Cup semi-finals in July? Or the jubilation of German fans when their country won the final? A new study by Canadian and U.S. researchers concludes that our emotional responses to events are intensified when watched simultaneously in groups rather than alone.

Across five experiments, the researchers found that watching various videos or ads in groups produced more intense feelings in participants than when they watched alone or even just a minute apart. For example, a scary ad featuring an animal with large, shark-like teeth was found to be scarier when viewed in a group. In another experiment, participants watched a 60-second video depicting homelessness. Those who watched it simultaneously as a group reported feeling sadder and, notably, said they would be willing to donate more money to a charity helping the homeless.

“Humans are really very social creatures and the way we have survived is by working together, communicating with each other and co-ordinating our actions,” explains Jacob Hirsh, one of the co-authors and an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and U ofT Mississauga.

Previous studies have shown that infants who are looking at an object at the same time as their mothers will have stronger brain activity than those looking at the object alone. “We’re very sensitive to when people are looking at the same thing we are. We actually allocate more of our attention to that thing,” explains Dr. Hirsh. And that intensifies our emotional response to it.

The phenomenon helps explain the mass appeal of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, he adds. “It’s that awareness that you are part of a large group of people who are attending to this that can actually intensify the impact of it.” When we are part of a social collective, “There’s going to be higher highs and lower lows.”

And it hasn’t escaped the attention of marketers. It’s why the Super Bowl and World Cup “are prime real estate when it comes to advertising,” Dr. Hirsh says.

The study is to be published in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

The benefit of beauty has its limits

Good looking people have it easier. Attractive adults are more likely to be given directions by strangers. Studies have found that teachers have higher academic expectations for attractive students and are more likely to encourage and mentor them. When attractive children misbehave they are punished more leniently. One study even showed that beautiful babies receive more parental attention and affection than less attractive ones. Researchers call this phenomenon the “beautiful is good stereotype.”

Two researchers at the Alberta School of Business in Edmonton, marketing professors Robert Fisher and Yu Ma, decided to take a look at what impact this phenomenon has on promotional materials used by charitable organizations to raise money for children in need.

In four experiments, participants were asked to visit a fictional website either to help a disaster-relief agency select a poster child for its campaign or to select a child to sponsor. The study found that images of attractive children tended to evoke less empathy in participants, in part because attractive children were assumed to have superior social skills and abilities and require less adult protection. But, the study also found that when the children were portrayed as homeless or in dire need, the level of attractiveness had no effect on the level of empathy the image evoked or on participants’ desire to help.

The findings hold lessons for relief agencies, children’s hospitals and other charitable groups that use images of children on their websites, brochures and other promotional materials, the authors say. “Ours is the first research to offer evidence that using images of attractive children to represent a charity can have a negative effect on empathy and actual helping behaviours,” they write. They caution against using child models or other inauthentic images.

The study was published in the May issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Rosanna Tamburri can reached at tamburrirosanna@gmail.com

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