How a Social App Reduces Food Waste and Promotes ‘Feel-Good’ Decluttering: Founder Q&A |

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How a Social App Reduces Food Waste and Promotes ‘Feel-Good’ Decluttering: Founder Q&A

Do you ever find yourself feeling guilty when throwing away leftovers or accidentally letting food in your fridge expire? What about when you pass by a full bakery display case on your walk home from work? Do you wonder what will happen to the orphan pastries left behind by the breakfast crowd?

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We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but each year about a third of food produced across the globe goes to waste, according to the World Economic Forum. And food waste generates four to five times the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the aviation industry, per the United Nations Environment Program. In the U.K., for example, a typical household generates over £1,000 ($1,253) of food waste per year while 9 million people face food insecurity.

Tessa Clarke, 47, daughter of a farmer from Yorkshire, England, saw firsthand the effort that goes into growing and harvesting food and decided that there had to be a better alternative. So, in 2015, Clarke and her co-founder Saasha Celestial-One set out to harness the power of sharing with Olio, a mobile app designed to combat food waste by connecting a few communities in North London. 

At its launch, neighbors could use Olio to pass on spare food while volunteers coordinated with local businesses and restaurants to redistribute their unsold or unserved food. Olio’s mission has since expanded into fighting all overconsumption, with users now able to post any unneeded items such as furniture, clothing and books to promote what the platform calls “feel-good” decluttering. 

So far, 8 million Olio-ers worldwide have shared 160 million portions of food, avoided 181,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, and saved 23 billion liters of water. Earlier this month, Observer interviewed Clarke about the inspiration driving Olio, the app’s unforeseen social influence, and how her startup encourages people to participate in its mission. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Observer: What inspired you to start Olio, and how did the idea evolve into what it is today?

Tessa Clarke: I’m a farmer’s daughter and so I grew up with an especially deep dislike of food waste. As a result, when I was moving to the country nine years ago and found myself with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Instead, I set out onto the streets to try and find someone to give it to. But unfortunately, I failed miserably. That led to the lightbulb moment for Olio: a mobile app that connects neighbors to safely and easily share food.

My co-founder Saasha and I ran a proof-of-concept using a small WhatsApp group in North London. When that worked we decided to take the plunge and build a mobile app. Olio connects people with their neighbors so that they can give away, rather than throw away, their spare food and other household items, and lend and borrow instead of buying brand new.

We also have 100,000 volunteers who collect unsold food from supermarkets, corporate canteens, school canteens and hospital canteens and redistribute it to their local communities via the Olio app. Our largest clients include Tesco, Iceland, and Holland and Barrett. 

Can you explain the mission and vision behind Olio and how it aims to address food waste?

Sadly, it’s no exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the largest, but most unrecognized, problems facing humanity today. Globally,  one third of all the food we produce each year goes to waste, which is worth over $1 trillion. The environmental impact of this is absolutely devastating: if it were to be a country, food waste would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the U.S. and China. 

What’s surprising is that in a country such as the U.K., over half of all food waste takes place in the home, with a typical household of four generating over £1,000 of food waste per year. Alongside this, we have approximately 9 million people experiencing food insecurity, of whom 4 million are children

Our vision at Olio is simple: we want to harness the age-old practice of sharing to solve the very modern problem of food waste. Our research shows that no one enjoys throwing away food; we just do it because we’re no longer connected to our local communities, and so we no longer have anyone to give our spare food to. 

What impact has Olio had so far in terms of reducing food waste and fostering community connections?

So far, our community has shared over 160 million portions of food and 11 million household items. This has had an environmental impact equivalent to taking over 616 million car miles off the road and has saved over 23 billion liters of water (because food production is incredibly water-intensive).  

Olio’s social impact is just as powerful as its environmental impact: 40 percent of our community say they’ve made friends through the app, two-thirds say sharing has improved their mental health, and three-quarters say sharing has improved their financial well-being. In addition to this, there are countless heartwarming stories shared with us every week of the friendships formed and small acts of kindness taking place on doorsteps across the country. 

What strategies does Olio employ to encourage more individuals and businesses to participate in food sharing?

One of the core ways in which Olio has grown is thanks to our Ambassador Program. We now have over 50,000 ambassadors who are passionate about our mission and who want to be able to use Olio in their local communities. We equip our ambassadors with posters, letters, flyers, and content for social media so they can spread the word about Olio on our behalf.

In addition to directly encouraging businesses to participate, we’ve also been campaigning with other organizations such as Feedback, to encourage the U.K. government to pass the regulation they consulted on, which would mandate that large businesses have to publicly report their food waste data. With businesses in the U.K. throwing away the equivalent of over 2 billion meals per year, it’s clear that if we could bring this practice out from behind closed doors, then we can really start to tackle it in earnest and get this precious food redistributed. 

How do you balance the social and environmental mission of Olio with the need to generate revenue and sustain the business?

There’s often an assumption that there must be a trade-off, or tension, between having a positive environmental or social impact and making money. However, the most powerful business models are those where impact and revenues grow in lock-step with one another.

How? In the case of Olio, we generate more revenues by getting more listings on the app—because businesses pay us to redistribute their unsold food—and by getting more listings on the app. We also have two smaller revenue streams which are subscriptions and advertising. Building out these capabilities doesn’t directly drive our impact, but they’re absolutely critical to enabling Olio to become self-sustaining and so continue to have an impact over the longer term


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