Garbology, the study of trash, was created by archaeologist Bill Rathje in the 1970s. Garbology involves examining waste in order to discover patterns about human behavior. These patterns can also be an important business strategy. Companies study waste in order to determine how well their products are doing in comparison to their competitors.
In the 1970s a popular UK yogurt brand, Ski, started to face major competition. In order to do market research and compare Ski’s sales to their competitors, a garbology study was conducted. The study was done by Audits of Great Britain, through a “dustbin audit.” This meant that households across the UK were paid to put their trash from certain products and brands in a separate trash can. The trash was then collected and cataloged, revealing how often certain products were being purchased. Ski and their competitors were all on the list of products to be separated. The study revealed Ski’s success over the competition. This was a crucial marketing strategy, as it revealed that Ski was outperforming other brands, and allowed for them to negotiate favorable shelf space with grocery stores and other retailers.
Garbology is also used for corporate espionage. Companies have been involved in elaborate schemes to steal trash from their rivals, all in the hopes of gaining valuable intelligence on their products. One example of this is the 2001 conflict between hair-care companies Proctor & Gamble (P&G) and Unilever. P&G admitted to going through Unilever’s trash in hopes of gathering information. Senior P&G officials were supposedly unaware of the operation and put a stop to it after finding out. This involved handing documents over to Unilever, firing multiple employees involved, and issuing an official apology. This example is one of many where companies have been caught spying. In fact, there are those who have made their careers in the garbology side of corporate espionage. Marc Barry, co-author of Spooked: Corporate Espionage in America, claims to have searched over 2,500 dumpsters throughout his career, but that it is one of the riskiest forms of corporate espionage, because “If one of your agents gets caught, there’s no plausible deniability” (Sachdev 2001). While risky, many companies use garbology as an intelligence strategy because of how much information they can gain on their competitors’ products, making it a surefire way to get ahead.
The numerous ways in which garbology can be applied to marketing and business strategy demonstrates how valuable of a tool it is. When studying trends of human behavior or advancements in products, trash is an important physical data point. As a business strategy it is a way of studying the market in order to get ahead. There are some ethical concerns with how these strategies may be conducted, and most of them are deemed unprofessional, as they are initiated by one company without the others’ consent. However, these strategies persist, as it is difficult to doubt their business-advancing results.
History of Garbology:
Garbology and Our Future:
Baraniuk, Chris. 2022. “Garbology: How to spot patterns in people’s waste.” BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220429-garbology-how-to-spot-patterns-in-peoples-waste.
Boisvin, Lindsey, and Karen Cheng. 2016. “Animated waste installation | UW Facilities Blog.” UW Facilities. https://facilities.uw.edu/blog/posts/2016/04/18/uw-garbology.
“Garbology – Meaning, Importance & Example.” 2020. MBA Skool. https://www.mbaskool.com/business-concepts/marketing-and-strategy-terms/17878-garbology.html#3.
Logue, Stephen. 2016. “History of Ski.”
Sachdev, Ameet. 2001. “P&G admits Unilever garbage search.” Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-09-01-0109010181-story.html.
“Waste Audit – Getting Started – Reductioninmotion.com.” 2022. Reduction In Motion. https://reductioninmotion.com/waste-consulting/waste-audit/.