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Open Access Publications from the University of California

From Street Market to Superstore: Retail Modernization and Food Waste in South Korea

  • Author(s): Lee, Keith Chun Leem
  • Advisor(s): Wolch, Jennifer
  • et al.
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Food waste is an increasingly pressing issue with adverse environmental, social, and economic impacts related to climate change, water use, land use change, and food security. A better understanding of this phenomenon is required to better shape policies for its reduction and improved management. One trend especially relevant to food waste that remains under-examined is retail modernization, which occurs in concert with urbanization and involves the food retail sector’s transition from traditional and family-owned retailers to corporate-owned retailers, who operate a range of store formats, including hypermarkets, supermarkets, and convenience stores.

In this dissertation, I explore and compare the potential for corporate and traditional retailers to exert influence both “downstream” and “upstream” in South Korea’s food supply chain, with varying consequences for food waste. Downstream, I investigate and compare the influence of corporate and traditional food retail formats on South Korean households’ grocery shopping and food-related practices. In particular, I focus on how factors such as grocery shopping trip characteristics like shopping frequency, travel time, and mode choice, in addition to related influences like marketing tactics, product mix, and packaging sizes, affect households’ tendencies to buy too much food, contributing to household food waste. Turning upstream, I then compare the production and distribution networks that serve corporate and traditional retailers, which are differentiated mainly by corporate retailers’ greater vertical integration, access to cold-chain technology, and improved logistics. While these factors may reduce food waste during distribution and retailing, corporate retailers may also employ more stringent quality standards, which may exacerbate food waste by increasing the discards of potentially edible food that does not meet these standards.

I developed a mixed-methods research design to assess the above-described effects of retail modernization on food waste. Employing a theoretical framework that primarily draws from practice theory, I collected data on household food waste using a household survey (N=460), food waste diary (N=102), and semi-structured interviews (N=13), which I analyzed using a combination of multivariate regression and bivariate analyses. I evaluated the causes and extent of fresh fruit and vegetable (FFV) food waste from the postharvest to retail stages of the food supply chain using a case study approach built on data from informant interviews and secondary research. In this case study, I trace and compare traditional and corporate retailers’ supply chains for FFV in order to identify the main causes of food waste. Using interview data and existing data on transactions South Korean FFV distribution channels, I also develop a rudimentary model that estimates and compares the quantity of food waste in the South Korean FFV distribution system attributable to traditional and corporate retailers.

My findings connected retail modernization to food waste in several ways, while also raising questions for further research. At the household level, there was evidence to suggest from analysis of my survey data that avoidable food waste per person tended to decrease as households’ grocery shopping trips increased in frequency from once a week to every day. The survey data also showed that longer travel times were associated with more avoidable food waste per person. Both longer travel times and less-frequent grocery shopping trips tended to be more closely associated with corporate retail formats, in particular hypermarkets. Analysis of diary data also implicated corporate retailers in contributing to household food waste due to the greater presence of sell-by dates on their food products. At the retail stage, limited access to cold chain and demand forecasting technology meant that traditional retailers discarded more FFV food waste than corporate retailers due to their vulnerability to adverse weather conditions and poorer-than-expected sales. During post-harvest processing, corporate retailers’ food waste was not substantially differentiated from traditional retailers’ because FFV processing and grading is undertaken at facilities common to corporate and traditional retailers’ supply chains.

Although my findings indicated that while retail modernization may reduce food waste in the pre-consumer stages of the food supply chain, there was also evidence to indicate that this advantage may be being eroded by its simultaneous contribution to increased household food waste. Policy implications include the need to ensure the continued presence of small-format food retailers while supporting the modernization of their food procurement systems and infrastructure. This should be accompanied by efforts to regulate packaging and marketing promotions as well as continued consumer initiatives that help households buy the right amounts and manage their food more efficiently. Future research should examine more closely the potential interrelationships between food retailing, households’ grocery shopping trip characteristics, and households’ food management practices. It may also be valuable to formally investigate the role that actor diversity in agricultural production and distribution systems helps mitigate pre-consumer food waste by providing more sales channels for lower-quality produce.

A limitation to the research is the reliance of the household survey on self-reported household food waste data, although this was mitigated to an extent by asking households’ to quantify their food waste using South Korea’s volume-based food waste pricing system as a frame of reference. The research is also limited by its potential lack of applicability and replicability in other geographic or cultural contexts, which stems from the context-specific nature of food production, distribution, and consumption.

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This item is under embargo until November 7, 2021.