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Wabi-Sabi can save aging produce

If you say the words wabi-sabi to anyone above the age of three, they’re apt to burst out laughing. But the concept is a time-honored one in Japanese culture, and some market researchers claim that it could help retailers sell older and imperfect produce.

Wabi-sabi is extremely un-American—not politically or morally, but aesthetically. To understand this, just think of the words “new” and “old” and see how you respond. “New” is good, fresh, vibrant, desirable. “Old” is worn-out, decrepit, ready to be thrown away.

Wabi-sabi celebrates the old, the worn-down, the imperfect. Inspired by Buddhist teachings about the transience and imperfection of all earthly things, it brings these qualities forward.

In his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, Leonard Koren explains the differences between modernism and wabi-sabi. Modernism is “mass-produced/modular . . . ostensibly slick . . . needs to be well-maintained.” Wabi-sabi is “one-of-a-kind/variable . . . ostensibly crude . . . accommodates to degradation and attrition.”

Wabi-sabi has made its way into Western culture, for example in choices of distressed wood over new lumber straight from the mill. You can also see it in ultrachic jeans with gaping rips in the knees.

In an article published this month in the Journal for the Association for Consumer Research, Minkyung Koo, Hyewon Oh, and Vanessa M. Patrick ask whether wabi-sabi can be used to reduce produce waste, noting that “the aesthetic evaluation of produce as old (not fresh) one of the key reasons for this immense food waste.” They ask whether older-looking fruits and vegetables can be somehow made more appealing despite their imperfections.

The researchers claim that associating aging produce with human aging—to which everyone is subject—can “result in a warmer, more compassionate lens by which old produce is evaluated.”

Marketers may be able to use these insights to reap more profits “without having to markdown produce that appears less fresh,” says the article. “For example, retailers could sell a bundle of less fresh fruits as a fruit family or use a sign that could activate humanlike features or messages such as ‘pick me.’ This tactic may help decrease costs resulting from discarding produce that are imperfect but is still safe and healthy to consume.”

Although this research is based on three extensive studies, there are some problems with the conclusions.

In the first place, the researchers failed to ask one question: would you be more likely to buy these older cucumbers, however humanized, than fresh ones? Or pay as much for them?

Another problem is that, as the article says, “the focal effect is attenuated for individuals who hold a lay theory that ‘young (vs. old) is good.’” Since this category conceivably includes most of the U.S. population, it isn’t clear how well this anthropomorphizing tactic would work in practice.

At most, the article shows that if you arrange older, less perfect produce in a creatively humanized way, customers will look on it more favorably. But the research doesn’t show whether customers would pay as much for it as for the fresher items in the bin nearby.

In short, the researchers haven’t made a strong case for their tactic as a way of getting higher prices for older produce. In produce, quality almost always equals freshness, and there are good reasons for this, the most obvious being that fresh produce is simply going to last longer.

Wabi-sabi might have some applications in selling fruits and vegetables, but it is more likely to be on the end of imperfection. The wabi-sabi aesthetic could be used to stimulate interest in oddly shaped, but still fresh, items. We can see some evidence for this in the continual fascination with oddly shaped fruits and vegetables—potatoes that look like a cat and so on.

But for the foreseeable future, imperfection is more likely to be embraced in the avant-garde than by the mainstream. If all else is equal, the typical consumer will probably still go for modernism over wabi-sabi in fruits and vegetables.

Richard Smoley is Editor with Blue Book Services Inc.