In 2014, Tesco – one of the world’s largest food retailers – revealed that it had generated almost 57,000 tonnes of food waste in its UK operations over the previous twelve-month period. This shocking statistic added to existing evidence of a significant environmental and social problem in the UK and across the world. This paper utilises convention theory to examine the role of major retailers in the context of this global problem and assesses their motivations for acting on food waste. Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders (including major retailers), the analysis investigates their main justifications for action on food waste. It finds that retailers mostly appealed to three conventions or ‘orders of worth’ (civic, market and opinion) and used these as a basis for their commitment to food waste reduction. We argue that the combination of these different justifications is feasible and necessary in the context of the retail sector but that they may also lead to some unintended consequences (in the retail sector and beyond). Crucially, we demonstrate how the dilution of civic justifications (by their financial and reputational counterparts) might produce negative outcomes and inaction as retailers attempt to adhere to the so-called ‘food waste hierarchy’. The paper highlights the continuing significance of convention theory as a framework for analysing possible responses to the social and environmental challenges confronting global agro-food systems.