When did sharing food become weirder than wasting it? That’s the simple question posed by food sharing app OLIO, which is tackling the food waste crisis community by community. We chat to co-founder Tessa Clarke to find out more
“We will look back on 2019 as the year that the world woke up,” OLIO co-founder Tessa Clarke tells me. “But waking up is not enough. We have to translate that into action.” While the realities of climate change once felt distant, the urgency of the crisis has been well and truly catapulted into our daily lives in the past year. You only have to look at the devastating images of Australia’s ongoing bushfires – at such a huge scale that they are now larger than Belgium and Denmark combined – for it to hit home that the climate emergency is not something that is going to happen, it’s already here.
The thought is overwhelming. The consequences are so colossal for the world that it can be easy to feel helpless about what to do at an individual level to make a difference. But there is one thing that is often overlooked: food waste.
70 percent of food waste happens in the home
And surprisingly, it’s not retail and restaurants that are the biggest culprits, it’s us normal people living our daily lives. Yep, that piece of bread you threw away yesterday is one of the 24 million slices of bread thrown away every single day in Britain. It all adds up.
The stats are pretty staggering. In the UK alone, food waste totals £20 billion every year and 70 percent of it happens in the home in the ‘developed’ world. The average family wastes 22 percent of their weekly shop, costing around £800 per year.
Combine that the food waste around the world and you have a serious problem. “If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas, behind only the USA and China. And a third of [the world’s food] goes to waste,” Clake says. That’s about 1.3 billion tonnes of wasted food. Just let that sink in for a moment.
And that is without even going into the larger global hunger issue. Eight hundred and twenty one million people go to bed hungry every night. That is one in nine people on the planet who are starving or malnourished. And the problem is felt close to home too, with 8.4 million people living in food poverty in the UK.
“How can this completely dystopian scenario be the reality of what’s happening today?” Clarke says. Unlike the arresting images of plastic pollution and melting ice caps, food waste still remains under the radar for the average person, yet it is a key factor in the bigger picture of climate change.
Harnessing People Power
If the problem is partly being created at an individual level, by the same logic it can be solved at an individual level. And that’s where OLIO, the food sharing app, comes in. “The philosophy of OLIO is that we want to empower everyday people to make a difference,” Clarke says. “And by sharing food instead of wasting it, you also get to know your community and your neighbours.”
The way the app works is simple. Users snap a photo of their spare and add it to the app. Neighbours who live nearby receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy. All items are offered for free.
Food shared could be food nearing its sell-by date, spare home-grown vegetables or the groceries in your fridge when you go away on holiday, or go on a diet. You can also share other household items that you no longer want or need, like furniture, clothes, toys and toiletries.
The app, which launched in 2015, has already got a user base of 1.7 million people globally, largely achieved by word of mouth, and has just reached an impressive milestone of more than 3 million portions of food shared.
“The environmental equivalent of that is eliminating 8 million car miles off the road. And we've also saved 435 million litres of water. Currently, we are doing 0.001 percent of our potential. Just think of the impact of billions of people sharing food rather than tossing it in the bin,” Clarke says.
So what was the lightbulb moment for OLIO? For Clarke, it was the moment when she was packing up her life in Switzerland in 2014, preparing to move back to the UK. The removal company had asked her to get rid of all the excess food in the flat. As someone who grew up on a farm and had a strong appreciation of the value of food and a “pathological hatred of food waste”, Clarke wasn’t prepared to do that.
It seemed crazy that someone only 100 metres from me probably would love all this food, but they didn’t know about it
To her frustration, the woman she had wanted to give it to wasn’t there and she didn’t have time to knock on doors. “It seemed crazy that someone only 100 metres from me probably would love all this food, but they didn’t know about it.”
“I had been working in the digital world for about 10 years by then, so I knew there was an app for everything, but imagine my surprise when there was nothing. So that was the lightbulb moment,” Clarke adds.
Alongside co-founder and friend Saasha Celestial-One – the daughter of Iowa hippy entrepreneurs (hence the incredible name) – and someone whom Clarke had known since they were in business school together, she set out on a food waste revolution.
Clarke says alongside individual users, they have a crew of over 40,000 ambassadors. “These are people who are reached out to us to say ‘how can I help’ and we equip them with digital content and information to share online but also we give them physical marketing materials and posters, letters, flyers, so they can do kind of guerrilla marketing in their own local community and spread the word.”
They also work with businesses via their Food Waste Heroes programme. Working in a similar way to individuals using the app, when a store or cafe needs to get rid of stock, the local community ‘food waste heroes’ – who are trained online – get an alert via the app to pick it up and redistribute it around the community on the app. “It's just good old fashioned common sense.”
OLIO’s long term goal is for one billion people to be using the app in the next 10 years. “We have to solve the food waste problem and we have to solve it in the local community,” Clarke says. The team also wants to help people live a more sustainable life in their home more generally.
So next time you’re packing up for a holiday, spare a thought for those bananas in your fruit bowl, or that cake you never got round to eating, and share it with your neighbours. You’re not just helping someone out, you’re helping the planet too.