Everyone loves an underdog. Now fighting for better representation in the marketplace are ugly vegetables. Or rather, companies are creating a new market for cosmetically unpreferable produce. Just like it is with anything else, the aesthetics of produce usually determine their marketability. Bananas are carefully grown to be a specific consumer-preferred color (Pantone color 12-0752), extra pesticides are used ward off infections that affect aesthetics but not taste or healthfulness of tomatoes and red apples, and there actually are legally binding “collective marketing agreement” between produce buyers and sellers (a Marketing Order) that can include the appearance of foods. Whatever fails to conform to cosmetic standards worthy of the supermarket is left unharvested, sold to processing factories, turned into animal feed, or donated to food banks, according to a 2012 National Resources Defense Council “Issue Paper” on American food waste. In any of these cases, ugly produce gives a farmer less return than bright, pretty produce. And food waste in general is of course, glaringly inefficient on a water-usage and land-usage level as well.
Enter Imperfect Produce, a start-up that delivers produce boxes of misshapen foods to homes in California’s East Bay area. The company re-brands the concept of eating ugly produce by claiming that buying “imperfect”:
- helps reduce food waste
- will “generate extra revenue for farmers”
- makes “produce more affordable for all families”
- is convenient, as deliveries go straight to your door
- is cool, creative, and different
As someone interested in adjusting consumer’s cultural values to embrace environmentally-preferable concepts, I find the first and fifth elements listed the most salient of Imperfect’s tactics. Their marketing strategies are mostly online and highly, highly interactive, which allows them to not read like advertisements. Twitter campaigns ask followers to convene at a certain time to discuss food waste for a feel-good impact (lots of #TasteNotWaste and #BuyUgly), Instagram campaigns ask you to share your best recipes with the “Imperfect community” (#CookingUgly), and Imperfect’s images of produce never fail to anthropomorphize misshapen produce. Goodwill gestures sell and quirkiness sells. Last Friday, they also physically brought people around the Bay area together for a screening of “Just Eat It,” a documentary on ugly produce, food-tasting, pumpkin decorating, and cooking lessons. Creative expression sells.
I don’t have many tools to gauge Imperfect’s success yet; they’ve only been open since September 2015, and they’re also limited to Northern California at the moment. They do have a couple hundred Instagram followers and nearly 2,000 Twitter followers to date. But there’s certainly some precedent to believe it’ll be successful. During March of 2014, Intermarche, a French supermarket chain, created a popular ugly food campaign for one of its stores. Unlike Imperfect Produce’s distribution method, Intermarche’s hinged on attracting customers to the store. And it worked. “Overall store traffic rose 24%,” reported a National Public Radio article. The campaign, titled “Inglorious Foods and Vegetables” was successful enough that they renewed it in all 1,800 of their stores for a week of October of the same year. The ads also relied on attributing personalities to dewy, bright, and absurd veggies individually photographed in print ads, and featured on commercials.
Staff scientist Dana Gunders, who authored the aforementioned NRDC report, says increased purchases of ugly produce is one of many solutions that would help curtail America’s surprisingly large food waste problem– up to 40% of food produced in the US ends up in a landfill. As for Imperfect’s claim that purchasing ugly supports farmers, it’s worth asking for a definition of “farmers.” Does this mean support for small or medium sized farms, or are large corporate farms benefitting from ugly produce sales the most? This may matter to you, and given Imperfect’s liberal target demographic, it seems they would want its target to believe that they’re helping smaller farms the most.
The other way to reduce food waste at the consumer level is for consumers to stop letting food rot in the fridge. Gunders stated in “Just Eat It” that 15-25% of produce in people’s homes goes waste because consumers are uninformed about the meaning of expiration dates and because they let food rot. Her report names not throwing away the food you’ve already purchased as another solution to decrease waste (and it saves money). The “problem” with championing this method is that it translates into fewer produce sales. Farmers, supermarkets, and produce companies lose money from this form of efficiency. A campaign to reduce the amount of spoilt food in your fridge might lack the potential to garner as much support since there are no financial benefits for the players up the supply chain. To get around that problem, you’d have to figure out how to fund and sustain an ad campaign or marketing strategy sans food producers, processors, and distributor support; #CapitalismProblems.