Scoring a bounty of unsold cafe sandwiches through a food-sharing app is widely celebrated as a way for consumers to fight food waste.
But a new study suggests that the environmental benefits of the digital food-sharing economy might be almost totally eclipsed in many cases—for instance reversing greenhouse gas savings by up to 94%—all depending on how app-users spend the saved cash.
The researchers on the new Journal of Industrial Ecology study were particularly interested in the ‘rebound effect’: that’s an economic theory showing that increased resource efficiency can often lead to an unexpected higher demand for that resource.
It’s widely used in energy economics, for instance, to explore how greater fuel-use efficiency drives increased demand for fuel, effectively canceling out some of the benefit. The researchers were keen to find out whether that phenomenon plays out in the world of online food-sharing too.
They focused on the UK context, looking at the digital sharing app OLIO which has thousands of subscribers. The researchers first quantified the money saved, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions, water, and land-use diverted, by consumers who collected over half a million food items through the app, between 2017 and 2020.
Next, they used information about those app users’ income categories, together with UK spending data, to draw up a picture of how consumers typically use the marginal amounts of money saved through more efficient spending like this. That informed the creation of seven hypothetical but realistic spending scenarios, which represented different purchasing behaviors and income groups. This enabled them to compare the environmental footprint of the additional spending—whether it was used for transport, clothing, recreation, or more food—to the environmental savings achieved through the app.
First-off, they were able to show that over the study period, OLIO cut food waste, valuing almost £3 million. The environmental savings of this massive quantity equated to 1,265 tons of CO2-equivalent, 96,100 cubic meters of freshwater, and 4.1 square kilometers of farmland.
However, the researchers write, “we find that in most scenarios, a substantial share of these benefits is eroded when accounting for rebound effects.”
Depending on how the saved money was spent, and the impact category measured—emissions, water, or land-use—between 20 and 94% of the benefit was erased, as consumers diverted that saved money to other pursuits that came with their own environmental price tag.
Across the three individual impact categories the changes were significant. Between 59 and 94% of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions could be lost, together with 20 to 81% of water gains, and 23−90% of land use benefits, depending on how the money is spent.
By drilling down into spending habits, the researchers made another somewhat surprising discovery: spending the saved cash on more food was one of the spending choices most likely to undo the positive effects—with consistently high impacts across the environmental categories. In fact, using one of their seven scenarios the researchers showed that if consumers spent even just half the money they’d saved through the app on more food, that would undo 94% of the emissions reduction, 89% of land savings, and 81% of water savings achieved through food-sharing.
Even in the researchers’ baseline scenario which reflected the average spending patterns across the UK population, the benefits were heavily offset, with 68% declines in emissions reductions, 35% for water, and 40% for land use. Across the scenarios, greenhouse gas savings were consistently impacted worst by this extra spending, with not only purchases of food, but also transport and recreation, erasing a chunk of the global warming benefit of food-sharing activities.
Growing concerns about food waste, paired with tightening purse-strings, have led to the rise of the digital food-sharing economy. As such, the researchers are careful not to dismiss this phenomenon out of hand. After all, food sharing still does have some environmental benefits, and it’s valuable for other reasons too, like helping people weather economically tough times. Apps like OLIO could also help to make more eco-conscious behaviors mainstream.
But according to the researchers, if we don’t factor in rebound effects, we risk overstating the benefits of rapidly-spreading conscious-consumer behaviors.
For consumers who participate in food-sharing believing these everyday actions make a big difference, knowing the real score could perhaps empower them to take other actions with more impact. Like leveraging their cash savings to buy less carbon-intensive goods.
Meshulam et. al. “Sharing economy rebound: The case of peer-to-peer sharing of food waste.” Journal of Industrial Ecology. 2023.
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine