From trash to cash: “ugly” labels can change how consumers react to imperfect food
Since the VW Beatle, "ugly" products have a long history in marketing, but food has been the exception — until now
The launch of Apple's latest iMac has prompted the usual slew of reviews praising its design and commenting on the company's single-minded focus on making its products beautiful, sometimes to the detriment of their functionality. The impact that great aesthetic qualities can have on a product is a well-worn path in business research. This is less the case for the opposite. The effect of ugliness on consumers is, perhaps understandably, not such a popular topic. Yet perhaps there is as much to be learned from what is unattractive to the eye as from its opposite. Indeed, a new paper from Canadian researchers Siddhanth (Sid) Mookerjee, Yann Cornil, and JoAndrea Hoegg supports this view with interesting and socially relevant results. The object of their analysis and subject of their experiments? Ugly produce.
While ugly produce may seem like an odd subject for business school professors to study, there is a real issue here. Because consumers now expect fruits and vegetables to look good all year round, farmers and retailers are forced to throw away an excessive amount of consumable product purely for cosmetic reasons (worth over $15B/year). As an industry group notes:
More than 82o million people go hungry every day, while the world as a whole wastes or loses 1/3 of what is produced. In the case of fruits and vegetables, almost half (45%) is wasted. In our world of increasing extreme weather events and changes in climate, saving ugly fruit isn't only an issue of ethics, it is a question of resources. Valuable natural resources go into producing the food we throw away. It takes 13 litres of water to grow 1 tomato and 50 litres of water to produce one orange. It also takes seeds, soil, labour of farmers and even the fuel that goes into transporting the food. All of these resources are lost when the fruit (pun intended) of these labours is lost.
Food waste, the authors note, "also has damaging consequences for the environment: 96% of wasted food is left to decompose in landfills, resulting in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps solar radiation and contributes to climate change." In the bigger picture, food waste "leads to a waste of other valuable resources: 1.4 billion hectares of land and 25% of the world's fresh water are used to grow produce that will be later thrown away."
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