Pete Pearson serves as the Director of Food Waste at the World Wildlife Fund. You may be thinking, conservation and food waste? Say what?! We recently spoke with Pete about how waste & consumption are inextricably linked to the future well-being of our planet.
How did you first become drawn to sustainability issues?
I started my career in the food industry working as an IT project manager within a large grocery chain, SUPERVALU. After several years working there, I decided I wanted to complete an MBA. I found an MBA program in sustainable business management that was just starting. At the time there weren’t many MBA programs that had an emphasis on sustainability, but this program was pioneering the space. After completing the MBA, I was lucky enough to be hired as the SUPERVALU’s sustainability director, helping to create and lead their zero waste program.
Can you tell us more about the MBA program you did?
I started in 2006 as part of the second cohort at Green Mountain College in Vermont. The program took very typical MBA tracks and at each point we would inject the sustainable thinking or sustainable business elements. In hindsight, I can’t understand why every MBA program shouldn’t have this focus; fast forward 7-8 years later and you’re seeing a lot of MBA programs that now emphasize ecological and regenerative systems thinking.
There were a lot of folks with interest in energy; they wanted to look at renewable energy, efficiency, and the intersection with business. One person I still stay in touch with was a farmer developing local food programs in Colorado. She now owns her own farm. That was really interesting: to see the two different worlds; I was a corporate grocery guy and she was local farmer. I think we learned a great deal from each other, I know it was a very rich experience for me. The more we can bring these two worlds together and not have it be divisive, the better it is in the long run.
Can you describe the various transitions in your career that led you to your position of the director of food waste at the WWF?
At SUPERVALU, we created a measurement and recognition program for zero waste. I worked on behalf of nearly 2000 grocery stores and 11 brands, focusing on recycling materials that flowed through the grocery store. Food recovery and recycling was a huge part of the program. We implemented food recovery programs in every store and identified ways to divert edible food out of landfills. We wanted to do the best thing both socially and for the planet. I was no stranger to dumpster dives in the back of grocery stores. After SUPERVALU I went on do to independent consulting on sustainability, zero waste and sustainable sourcing, primarily working with schools and hospitals on developing waste diversion and recovery strategies. I’m still relatively new in my role at WWF and new to the Washington D.C. area, being a native of Idaho.
What were barriers you faced in doing zero waste education?
Well it’s waste; it’s rubbish, it’s trash. No one wants to be involved in it. It’s “away”; it’s out of people’s minds and that’s culturally what we have been conditioned to accept. But every time you do a dumpster dive or a waste audit, it heightens your awareness as to how much waste is generated in one day at a business or even in your home. Once you see it, everything changes. We take a lot for granted and there’s so much that can be done to prevent food waste from even occurring. Again, I’m not talking about finding ways to keep it out of landfills but to prevent it from even happening in the first place.
"Every time you do a dumpster dive or a waste audit, it heightens your awareness as to how much waste is generated in one day at a business or even in your home. Once you see it, everything changes."
How does your interest in food waste relate to conservation and wildlife?
Food production represents one of the biggest threats to the environment. As we expand food production it usually means we encroach upon ecosystems; we cut down more forests to develop farmland or we till up very diversity rich native grasslands. WWF is working hard to ease or stop the expansion of agricultural systems into the places we hold so dear. So if we’re trying to reduce agriculture’s negative impact on the environment, and we’re wasting 30-40% of the food we produce, we’ve got to make some changes, primarily cultural changes. It’s not just terrestrial; estimates show that almost ½ of all seafood is wasted in the US; that’s a huge number at a time when our fisheries are so stressed and so over-harvested.
"If we’re trying to reduce agriculture’s negative impact on the environment, and we’re wasting 30-40% of the food we produce, we’ve got to make some changes, primarily cultural changes."
What is the WWF Food Waste program’s mission?
Our mission is to get businesses and households to measure and become aware of food waste. Unless you understand how much you generate, there’s no understanding of how to best prevent it. It’s simply really; every kitchen and grocery store in America should be measuring and have programs aimed at preventing food waste. Food waste prevention not only saves money, but it’s one of the most impactful acts of ecosystem and wildlife conservation. If we can create this cultural revolution to prevent waste, we can truly change the world.