There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch: Changing Consumption Culture
A Thought Leader is an innovator and a creative force, and someone who uses their talents to change the world for the better. Today’s guest is just that, as she has dedicated herself to safeguarding the environment as we know it.
Tessa Clarke co-founded OLIO alongside her friend Saasha to combat food waste in the UK. Tessa was inspired by her farmer parents, seeing first-hand as a child how much work goes into food production. OLIO connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. This could be food nearing its sell-by date in local stores, spare home-grown vegetables, bread from your baker, or the groceries in your fridge when you go away. For your convenience, OLIO can also be used for non-food household items too. OLIO has won numerous accolades including a UN Momentum for Change award, a Europa award, a Sustainable City award, a national CSR award, and two SPARKies tech awards. Olio shares more than 70,000 meals a month and has almost 2 million users.
Liv: So, Tessa, you had that ‘light bulb’ moment in 2014 when you were moving back to the UK. Tell me what happened when you came up with the business idea.
Tessa: I was living with my family in Switzerland at the time, and we were moving back to the UK. On moving day, the removal men said to me that I had to throw away all of our uneaten food, and having grown up on a farm, the idea of food waste was something I had always hated. I stopped packing and I set out into the streets to try and find someone to give the food to and, long story short, I failed miserably.
So I ended up going back to the apartment and when the removal men weren't looking, I smuggled the non perishable food into the bottom of my packing boxes
It felt criminal to put perfectly good food in the bin when I knew that there was someone probably 100 meters away from me who would love that food, the problem was they just didn't know about it. So that was the original kind of lightbulb moment of, wow, why isn't there an app for this?
Liv: Your friends and family weren’t very supportive of the idea at first. Was that a driving force for you to get the business off the ground?
Tessa: No, it wasn't actually. In the early days you can be very insecure a
bout your ideas, especially when people quite literally kind of laugh and say, Are you crazy? You put it back in a bottle because you think maybe you are going crazy.
It only took one person, my co founder Saasha, to say it was an amazing idea to give me that belief. I've found in life that genuinely takes just one partner on the journey and that's enough. You've got a partner in crime for the good times and the bad times, and that was enough for us to get going.
Liv: Did you realise how big the problem of food waste was before you started the business?
Tessa: We had no clue. The first thing you do when you start
any business is you do your research, and what we discovered, absolutely shocked and stunned us. We could not believe that this was the state of our current world.
So very quickly, we learned that globally, a third of all the food we produce each year is thrown away, which is worth over a trillion US dollars.
We learned that if it were to be a country, food waste would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China. That's all the water, the land labour, the packaging, manufacturing, the energy distribution, all of those resources go into producing that food that ends up being thrown away.
The real kicker is that when food waste decomposes without access to oxygen, in landfill, it gives off a gas which is 23 to 25 times more deadly than co2. We're heating up the planet on an industrial scale, and alongside that, we have 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night. Even in a country like the UK we have 8.4 million people, which is almost the population of London are hungry living in food poverty, and so we just could not believe the insanity of the situation.
In a country like the UK, over half of all food waste takes place in the home, and so what that means is each and every one of us are a part of that problem. But if you kind of flip which is quite depressing, really. But if you flip it on its head, hang on a minute.
What that means however is that we can try and fix this problem ourselves.
Liv: How hard was it to get people to sign up to the idea initially? And how does the app actually work?
Tessa: In terms of getting people to sign up, it's been much easier than we could have imagined. It's just common sense that someone who has some food and doesn't need it should give it to their neighbour living nearby who would like it, rather than throw it perfectly good food in the bin.
It’s a common-sense concept that resonates with lots of people. Our biggest challenge though, has been do people want to pick up free food?
In terms of how the app works, it’s very simple. If you have some food that you don't want or need, you snap a photo and add it to the app. Neighbours living nearby get an alert, letting them know that something new has been added near them, they can then request what they want, and then they pop around and pick it up. This is hyperlocal and is not about driving anywhere. It's about connecting neighbours in the same community to share what is ultimately our most precious resource, which is food.
Now it's been relatively easy to get people signed up given our very limited budget, and also there is no shortage of people who want to pick up free food. Half of all the food added to the app is requested in under one hour. So, if you add something to Olio, it will almost certainly get requested extremely quickly.
Our biggest challenge is encouraging people to add food to the app. Now part of the problem is that a lot of people think that what they do doesn't count and it doesn't matter. Someone might throw two brown bananas into the bin and think, well, what difference does that make? It's only two brown bananas. Well, there are 28 million other households in the UK, all taking that same decision that week and that is how we are wasting millions of food every single day.
What you do, does count. Billions of tiny actions got us into this mess and so we believe that billions of tiny actions can actually kind of get us out of it.
Liv: How important is the community aspect of Olio to the brand?
Tessa: As soon as Olio launched, we've quickly realised that actually, this is not about food waste. This is about community. This is about connecting people with their neighbours.
As of today, we've got 45,000 ambassadors. These are people who are passionate about mission and they just think it's common sense that Olio needs to exist in the world. They are spreading the word about Olio on our behalf in their local communities.
Everybody at Olio has joined us not just because they are mission aligned, they are mission obsessed. And I'd say roughly half of the team actually started out volunteering for earlier. Every person on the team has a reason or story or connection as to why they're extremely passionate about seeing a world without food waste, and without the sort of social inequality that leads to hunger.
Liv: How much hustle has it taken to get where you are today?
Tessa: I always smile when I hear the overnight success thing. Firstly, because I’d love to know which one of the thousands of nights is the overnight success that people talk about. Secondly, even though we are very proud of what we have achieved, we are so far away from where we need to get to and so we regard ourselves as still being right at the very beginning of our journey.
Social media specifically has always been a really important part of our strategy because that is where we can get our message across easiest.
Liv: I hear that you are targeting 1 billion users in 10 years time, which is a massive goal..
Tessa: You’re absolutely right, we do have an enormous goal, and you might be thinking why such a crazy big goal. It’s very simple. It's because that is what the world needs us to achieve. If humanity wants to stand any chance whatsoever, then we have to solve the problem of food waste, and we have to solve it at scale.
What we really want to do actually is to help reinvent consumption because we have an economic model that is absolutely unsustainable. We're in mass collective denial about this, but the reality Is our current model is a very linear extractive one where we take resources from the planet, we use them and we toss them out into landfill. We've got seven and a half billion people doing that in a minute. It's just not sustainable.
We don't have enough resources in the world, so we're going to have to move to a model which is much more circular where we take resources at the planet, and then we utilise them around a local community and only a small amount comes out as waste.
In the future, whilst food is where Olio has started out, we have a rapidly growing non-food section on the app as well. People are giving away things such as toiletries, cleaning products, kitchen appliances, books, clothes, and toys. These are things people don't want to sell as they don't want to ship halfway across the country.
For us reinventing consumption really means two things. It means that if you want something the first place you will go to get something will be actually sourcing it from your neighbours and your immediate local community. The other side of that is then of giving stuff away. That’s the kind of experience that we are working towards.