Farm-To-Computer-To-Table: eCommerce Produce

Abigail Shipps
October 15, 2021

Sustainability has emerged as a major player in DTC eCommerce brand structure. Retail companies are closing their production loop, and homegoods are manufacturing their products with recyclable materials. While many sustainable practices eliminate materials such as plastic from landfills, another large issue at the forefront of sustainability woes is food waste. 

It is estimated that about 40% of food grown in the U.S. is thrown away. With all the efforts made by many consumers to buy local, buy organic, and compost, food waste remains a tough issue that’s proven difficult to tackle in one go. Grocery stores turn away food that is close to expiration, and oftentimes they don’t sell produce that look “ugly” or misshaped. “Ugly” produce includes food or produce with cosmetic imperfections, excess inventory, a package change, or food that is close to expiration (short-coded) or undervalued. With ugly produce and surplus, or dumping due to an unexpected drop in demand, an estimated 20 billion pounds of produce is lost each year. Additionally, on the consumer side, individual or household efforts are notable but not necessarily widespread.

How can a company tackle this behemoth of a sustainability issue? One possible solution: gather all the ugly, about to expire, locally grown produce, and other grocery goods and send to consumers a-la subscription boxes. From a click on the computer screen to sitting at your doorstep, several eCommerce food subscription services are on a mission to eliminate unnecessary food waste, one refrigerated box at a time. 

Bon Appetit, You’ve Got Mail

Food subscriptions are relative veterans to modern eCommerce, with one of the first food subscription services, Middagsfrid, launching in Sweden in 2007. The service delivers food ready to prep for dinners, ranging in portions and catering to a variety of dietary needs. Today, subscription boxes have taken two big directions: meal prep, and produce. 

Meal prep boxes oftentimes come pre portioned with easy-to-follow recipes that make cooking at home a breeze. Less time planning meals in advance, and more time enjoying food made from a fun new recipe. Popular subscription boxes such as Hello Fresh and Green Chef allow the customer to select dietary preferences, frequency of meals, and number of people to feed. Subscription box Hungry Root even markets towards replacing grocery shopping all together, following a similar model set by Middagsfrid by delivering produce, groceries, and accompanying recipes. 

Signed, Sealed, and Freshly Delivered

Produce boxes differ in the contents and sourcing– think eCommerce farmer’s market. These subscription boxes deliver fruits, veggies, and sometimes packaged foods that don’t correlate to a recipe. Instead, these boxes save produce that would otherwise be thrown out and repurpose them within refrigerators, pantries, and fruit bowls all around the country. 

Misfits Market focuses their company mission on delivering produce for up to 40% less than grocery store prices while fixing a broken food system. While working in food supply, founder Abhi Ramish saw how farmers had to resort to throwing produce out if it was too small, disfigured, or not suitable for grocery store standards. So, Misfits Market was born. The “sometimes normal” produce is certified organic and non-GMO, and it comes from hand picked farms across the Americas. Customers can choose between two different sized boxes, and they can now add some grocery items as well. 

Another subscription box company, Imperfect Foods, also sources “ugly” produce for their customers, but the focus lies in community outreach rather than lower prices. The company pledges to source sustainable, good quality food at a reasonable value that supports farmers. Additionally, Imperfect Foods outlines the standards of each food group they provide, such as sourcing firm and fresh fruit and focusing on gathering short-coded pantry items to fight food waste. In addition to broadcasting their impact with quantitative numbers on the site, Imperfect Foods established the Feeding Change Fund, which provides grants to non-profits in the U.S. that fight food waste. 

Subscription boxes are growing in popularity given the rise of influencer marketing, the focus on health and wellbeing, and the desire of consumers to spend their money on sustainable companies. The ease at which adding a weekly subscription takes the complication out of grocery shopping, and it allows customers to participate in the healthy lifestyle they desire, even if they are out of range of local, organic produce. With refrigerated and recyclable packages no bigger than a medium Amazon box, coupled with a blanket of sustainability sweeping over the food subscription industry, it’s easy for these companies to spread their influence all over the eCommerce landscape. 

Hashtag Sustainability

While these companies sell food and not sweat suits or makeup, their company framework as a DTC subscription service puts them in a unique position to claim qualities from both farmer’s markets and influencer brands alike. With eCommerce on a fast track due to COVID-19, and with social media hyper developing, it’s equal parts smart and comical that these boxes are joining the ranks of retail DTC brands using social media to influence and establish aesthetic. These boxes play directly into the alternative avenues many are taking to obtain produce in order to avoid public spaces and grocery stores due to the pandemic. Well, sustainability is definitely trending: by leveraging DTC eCommerce’s unobstructed and personal reach to consumers, with or without a pandemic to back it, these subscription boxes are settling next to the Glossier’s and Casper’s of DTC doorsteps. 

Subscription Boxes! Our Hero?

The DTC thumbprint on these subscription boxes make them a fast growing sustainable effort by people scrolling through Instagram. This impact? Varied, and somewhat controversial in part due to the relative newness of produce subscription. 

Gathering the excess or “ugly” produce from farmers allows for a democratization of organic produce, per se. With the lower than retail prices, the Misfits Market strategy doesn’t aim to supersede farmers, as it sources the excess or “ugly” fruit that would otherwise be fed to livestock or thrown out. Rather, it aims to make organic and non-GMO food available to those who can’t necessarily afford expensive grocery store prices. 

However, this strategy does not come without its drawbacks. Notably, Imperfect Foods has been criticized for packaging ugly fruit and “commodifying” it for profit towards the upper class who are interested in sustainable efforts, i.e. the same people scrolling through Instagram buying into other DTC influencer brands. Phat Beets was quick to call Imperfect Foods out on “selling a market solution disguised as activism, undermining alternative economies and social justice initiatives.” A big ugly detail here is that Imperfect Foods, as well as another subscription box Hungry Harvest, have admitted to sourcing from Big Ag corporations in small percentages. This poses a threat to the market for farmers’ crops, but it also poses a potential threat to community-sourced agriculture, or CSA’s. 

The big problem with food waste doesn’t seem to be bruised apples or smaller than normal potatoes– rather, it’s overproduction and subsequent waste. With subscription boxes sourcing and selling “ugly” or excess produce from farmers, doesn’t that fuel overproduction? On one hand, yes, but on the other hand, the reselling of surplus and ugly food in part helps offset farmers’ costs from food not going to a grocery store. As with many large issues, it’s the system that’s the problem– a mighty big fish that needs frying. 

A food system overhaul is long overdue– can eCommerce and DTC subscription box companies leverage their reach to consumers to successfully and sustainably tackle food waste? Perhaps that means recalibrating the focus towards only ugly foods rather than excess, or providing resources for local CSAs to encourage buying local and supporting a sustainable food conscious community. Maybe that means leaning into social media like other DTC brands to spread awareness and shed transparency on a sustainability story many only know parts of. Or, as we’ve discussed before, perhaps the answer lies in data. 

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