The Expiry Date Challenge for Sustainability

One of the things that we often do is check the expiry date before purchasing something. We ask ourselves, “Can I consume it within time?” So, what happens to expired products.

Expired products occur at three points – unsold expired products in company warehouses; unsold products at retail stores; and unused or partially used products at consumer homes. Expired products are a waste and mostly end up in landfills, a problem in the entire value chain.

Better demand assessment and inventory management should manage unsold inventory in company warehouses. Retail stores often sell near-expiry products at a discount to overcome the problem. Some stores implement electronic systems that will discount a near-expiry product at the time of billing. At the consumer end, behavioural issues often lead to increased waste. There is often a misunderstanding of what the label means. There are many terminologies – use by, best before, sell-by, purchase before, etc. The consumer takes them to mean the same, resulting in wastage. This can also be minimised by consumers being prudent and using smell and taste to deduce whether the food item is edible. In some product categories like medicines, it has been shown that the efficacy of the medicine does not reduce due to expiration – yet consumer resistance can be very strong. Or, take cosmetics where expiration dates are short, and there may be a genuine fear of something happening to the body.

Another issue is the legal requirement to label products. Take the case of honey. Pure honey doesn’t really go bad even after many years. Unfortunately there is a legal labelling requirement to label honey.

There is a genuine need to attack waste due to expiry dates. This requires consumer education as well as improved demand and inventory management. Waste also has implications for carbon emissions because the carbon emissions could be lower if there were less waste.

Published by Utkarsh Majmudar

Utkarsh Majmudar is a Fellow, IIM Ahmedabad and a professional with experience encompassing academics and administration at top business schools in India (IIM Lucknow, IIM Udaipur, and IIM Bangalore) and working with large corporations. His interest areas include corporate finance and CSR.

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