Sustainability is about survival – the subject needs to overcome the semantic bleaching that makes it a corporate nice-to-have, says Sam Peña-Taylor - a startup is working toward solving the chronic market failure of food waste in the face of global hunger.
Farmers hate wasted food with good reason: if you’ve grown a vegetable or raised an animal, the value goes beyond the financial and comes to represent the work, land, and water that was needed to create food. To throw all of that away is madness.
And yet, on a global scale, around a third of all the food produced is thrown away. Madder still is that one in every nine people living on the planet go hungry: 821 million people, according to the WHO. And the issue isn’t limited to poor countries: in the supposedly wealthy United Kingdom, 8.4 million people live in a state of food poverty, defined as the inability to afford or gain access to the food necessary for a healthy diet.
Ultimately, the market has failed: the rationality and trimness vaunted by the status quo’s cheerleaders has resulted in a flabby system that wastes resources and, stunningly, is unable to meet demand.
Something is so profoundly off-kilter here as to make anybody wonder how any of this is sustainable. The short answer is that it’s not. Even relatively sober estimates point to the global population reaching 9.7 billion people by 2050. In order to meet that need, global food production would have to increase by half. More disturbingly, that’s an increase the planet simply cannot cope with. If the global food industry were a country, it would be the third largest polluter on earth, behind only the US and China.
So the next time sustainability is mentioned at work, please don’t roll your eyes.
Like the other instances of semantic bleaching that the corporate world is so fantastic at perpetuating (think how ‘undoing structural racism and sexism’ became ‘diversity’), sustainability needs to be more associated with survival than anything cuddly. First, the survival of the human race; after that we might start to think about how we sustain our economies. So dig your shelters and pack your non-perishables underground, because it’s getting hairy, and taking an interest won’t be optional.
While a handful of new models for economic organisation are beginning to take form with sustainable development at their core, one in particular fits the current moment. (If you’re interested in an overview of current economists’ thinking on economics beyond GDP growth, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy wrote an excellent overview). There are plenty of businesses selling to consumers, and while all that selling might be good for the bottom line it ends up going far beyond what is actually required by people – the word ‘consumers’ feels a little off-beat in this context. But more and more, consumers in a hyper-local context are returning to exchanging or just sharing with each other.
Recently, I heard a talk by Tessa Clarke, co-founder and CEO of the app OLIO (herself the daughter of farmers), a C2C sharing service through which people can offload goods – primarily perishable foods, though its remit is expanding – by taking a quick picture, uploading it to the app for someone in their local area to then claim. Since its inception in the summer of 2015, as a local initiative in north London, it has expanded to well over 1.5 million users across 46 countries; over half of the food posted to the app is claimed within an hour.
WARC first wrote about OLIO late last year in a piece exploring how the putative sharing economy, which had mostly been described in terms set by Uber and Airbnb, was beginning a transition to a system of goods circulation based on access to a community. Clarke is aware of this: “We’re having a very clear environmental impact, but what’s just as exciting is the social impact of connecting people to meet, who live in the same community in real life,” she said in late January. “That is where the magic happens.”
It’s a thought-provoking observation that the social connection is what begins to appeal to users more than access to free food. Testimonials on the company’s website indicate that bringing people together, neighbours meeting neighbours, is an attractive tonic in this lonely world.
Another interesting thing about OLIO, on top of the strong user growth and admirable mission, is how it has started to make the money required to maintain its staff and software.
The company is bringing in revenue through a clever idea that could be termed sustainability-as-a-service: its Food Waste Heroes programme is effectively the collection and distribution of surplus food from restaurants, hotels, and other food-related businesses.
Currently, it’s free for small businesses and propped-up by volunteers, but its paying clients, according to the website, include Pret a Manger, Sainsburys, Selfridges, Eurostar, and Tesco. However, this is a small fraction of the overall costs of running the service, but the potential for its impact is large.
Though the initial costs of setting up such a distribution network are high, OLIO’s progress will be compelling to watch as this startup swims against a global tide. Its success, and more importantly, the success of its message, will matter to us all.