Media Release: Social media no silver bullet for food waste but essential in combined approach

Food waste costs Australia $36.6 billion annually, with almost $20 billion generated by households (FIAL, 2021). QUT researchers say social media campaigns can change food waste behaviours but are best included alongside other intervention tools for long-term impact.

Social media: The real impact on food waste reduction beyond the swipe or the click is a research project led by Dr Jenny Hou from QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre and School of Communication. Funded by the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre (funded by the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre program) and the NSW Environment Protection Authority, its findings have just been published (https://eprints.qut.edu.au/228653/).

These include the finding that fridge magnets and recipes cards are still effective tools for change as well as newer tools such as Tik Tok videos. Regardless of the tool, using emotional messaging rather than a scientific, educational approach will more cut through and attract our attention.

The researchers have also called for a multi-stakeholder, eco-system approach to be adopted, bringing together farmers/producers, retailers, consumers, influencers, policymakers and community groups to encourage and support behaviour change at an individual level.

The National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study produced by Food Innovation Australia Limited in 2021 reported that each year we waste around 7.6 million tonnes of food across the supply and consumption chain – a figure equivalent $2,000 to $2,500 per household per year. Food waste also accounts for approximately three per cent of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The project’s key aims were to examine how to measure the impact of social media campaigns on domestic food waste behaviour, offer guidance on best practice of designing social media campaigns, and make recommendations for executives and decision-makers to invest in social media communication as well as how to measure their return on investment.

Dr Jenny Hou

Dr Hou’s fellow researchers on the project are QUT’s Professor Amanda Lotz, Professor Greg Hearn and Dr Kelly Lewis.

They conducted focus groups with participants including experts in using social media across influence programs for clean energy and health promotion, international scholars working on food waste communication and sustainability in the UK, US, Europe and Australia, and researchers in fields including psychology, persuasion, and food policy. They also undertook an in-depth review of recent evidence-based research into the effect of social media campaigns on incremental food waste behaviour change.

Dr Hou said social media campaigns were a popular choice for global public education on food waste. These have included the United Nations’ ‘Think.Eat.Save. Reduce your foodprint’, America’s ‘Food recovery challenge’, the Fight Food Waste CRC’s ‘Fight food waste: it’s easy as’, and NSW’s ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaigns.

However, she said, it is unknown just how effective they are in driving real behaviour change which perhaps requires multiple interventions tailored to specific action points along a behaviour chain.

“Social media campaigns can attract a lot of traffic and attention, but the greatest challenge lies in how to evaluate their true influence. This is the case across all public education/intervention scenarios, including food safety, public health, road safety and other campaigns,” Dr Hou said.

“We have found that social media as part of an intervention mix was effective in raising awareness, developing social norms, enhancing food waste literacy, and increasing ‘perceived’ behaviour control over food waste. The question is in how to maintain user momentum for long-term, sustained behaviour change.

“There is no one-size-fits-all model, but many social marketing campaigns also include a wide range of other tools, all of which are useful to prompt behavioural change. These include printed information packs, game apps, websites, email alerts, fridge magnets, recipe cards, grocery shopping notepads, digital kitchen scales, and lidded buckets for waste composting/collection.

The project discovered that different social media platforms vary widely in their positive or negative impact. The researchers say Twitter was found to be a public forum suitable for promoting dialogue around waste and Facebook useful for sharing messages with social networks or local communities.

“YouTube works well for visual appeals and informational awareness, such as the teaching of how to cook with leftovers,” said Dr Hou.

“However, some social media platforms may drive behavioural extremes in counterproductive ways. The aestheticised performative culture of Instagram, for example, may raise expectations of how food should look, or even enable a culture which overly glamourises food, leading to more waste.”

Read the full report online at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/228653/

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