Science - December 21, 2018

Waste affects attitudes to a brand

Tessa Louwerens

Did you throw out half a tub of potato salad or an open packet of biscuits? Then there’s a good chance your attitude to this food product is less positive after that, shows research by Marketing and Consumer Behaviour.


‘There is a lot of attention to the negative effects of food waste on the environment but waste can also have immediate negative consequences for the producer,’ says Erica van Herpen, associate professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour. She and her colleague Ilona de Hooge conducted three experiments. In the first two, with a total of 500 participants, people were asked to imagine as vividly as possible that they were throwing out books, leftover food or half a bottle of juice. The test subjects reported afterwards having felt uncomfortable and valuing the discarded product less highly than they had previously done. Van Herpen: ‘The disadvantage of basing your study on a scenario like that is that it is not entirely realistic.’ The study was pupublished in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

In the third experiment, 124 students came to the laboratory, where they made and then ate a salad. There were too many ingredients. Students on one group were asked to throw out the leftover ingredients, while those in the other group were told the food would be used up later. In both situations, the brands of the ingredients were visible in one case and not in the other. The group which threw out the leftovers and could see the brand name, gave a lower rating of that brand afterwards than the group that was told the leftovers would be used.

According to Van Herpen, this effect is due to cognitive dissonance, an effect of your actions conflicting with your own ideas. You like the food (positive) but you still throw it out (negative). Your brain then has to do something to reconcile these contradictions, such as rating the discarded food less highly.

According to Van Herpen, it is not yet clear whether this is a longer term effect. ‘Although we didn’t look at whether people then also buy the product less, I would think that was a possible consequence, especially if the product gets wasted repeatedly.’ 

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