Episode 8 – The Food Sharing Revolution – Tessa Clarke, Olio



Food waste is a huge environmental issue and one that often doesn’t get as much attention as it perhaps deserves.

We often look to shift the blame to producers and supermarkets but actually, we may be more to blame than you think. Here in the UK for example households are responsible for well over half of all food waste in the country, with the average family throwing away a quarter of the weekly shop, this is approximately £800 of food per year, and collectively adds up to £15 billion. £15 billion of food in landfill.

And it isn’t just the emissions of the food in the landfill but the pointless environmental costs to get it there. You often have the biodiversity loss caused by the production of the food in the first place, then the transportation costs to get it from all corners of the earth, then the refrigeration costs and packaging, all to end up in the bin…..

Well if everyone in the UK is doing it we clearly need some disruption to change this and this episode’s interviewee has an app that is already starting to tackle this issue on a global scale.

In this episode, I speak with Tessa Cook who co-founded the company Olio back in 2015.

Olio is an app that aims to tackle the problem of food waste by in their words:

Connecting 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.

The app is already taking off in a big way and is very exciting. In the episode I ask Tessa how the idea for the app started? How did they get from idea to product? How does it make money? and what other benefits an app like this may have such as building up local communities that are starting to disappear in many areas. 


If you want to find out more about Olio head to https://olioex.com/about/

Or find them on twitter @olio_ex


Full Transcript


How big of a problem is food waste?


2:34 – Rob

How big of a problem from an environmental point of view is this issue of food waste. And moving on from that, how did you then come up with the idea of this app originally, and could you give us a little bit of a background of into how it works.


2:50 – Tessa

So I think food waste is one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. And that is very, very little is known about it. So I think a lot of people increasingly know that globally, a third of all the food we produce gets thrown away, which is worth a trillion US dollars. And if food waste were to be a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China. But what most people don’t realize is that in countries such as the UK, US, in Western Europe, etc, well, over half of all food waste takes place in the home. And that’s in contrast to less than 5% of all food waste which takes place at a retail store level. So that’s a really common misconception.


And I think it’s also worth touching on I’m sure your listeners will be familiar with this. But with Project drawdown, which was a collaborative piece of work that came out in 2017 now, where I think it’s probably 80 of the world’s leading climate change scientists said enough of the doom and gloom about climate change, let’s backgrounds the top 100 solutions to the problem of climate change. And in position number three was reducing food waste. And we like to point out that that comes above electric cars, and above solar power. So they are topics that are receiving an enormous amount of investment and media coverage. But actually, food waste is far more transformative in terms of its potential to solve the problem of climate change.


In terms of how the idea of Olio came about, it really came about from a personal experience. So I was living overseas four years ago. And on moving day the removal men said that I had to throw away all of our food. Now, I grew up on a farm, my parents are farmers. So I know from firsthand experience, just how much hard work goes into producing the food that we all eat every day. So I was absolutely not going to throw away this food. So much that irritation, I stopped packing, I bundled up my newborn baby and my toddler at the time. And I went out onto the streets with this food, to try and find someone to give it away to. And to cut a very long story short, I failed miserably. I thought about knocking on all of my neighbors doors, but realized I just didn’t have the time to do that. And even if they were in, it was probably going to be really awkward and embarrassing, they might not want what I had. So I ended up taking that food back to my apartment. To me, it seemed absolutely absurd that I should have to resort to this and have my only other alternative to be throw perfectly good food in a bed when surely there should be an app where I can just share this food with someone who lives nearby. So that was, yeah, that was the light bulb moment.


How does Olio work? How did you get it from idea to product?


5:44 – Rob


Could you just give us a little bit of an idea of how it works. With a lot of these ideas, and what seem like quite big ideas, having the idea is one thing but actually getting it from concept to delivery can be the stumbling point for for many people. It’s something we’ve focused on in past episodes of the podcast. And what I often ask other interviewees is how did they get from idea to concept and then to finally, a product that people can buy? Because that’s where a lot of the sticking points are. So yeah, can you give us a little bit of a background into how it actually works? And how did you get from that point of idea, which is one thing that’s actually getting it something that people can use, and it’s out there now in the world.


6:27 -Tessa


Yeah. So how it works is that if you have some food that you don’t want or need so you could be going on a holiday moving home, perhaps you are about to go on a diet, maybe you’re a keen gardener, over-catered for a party. Whatever the reason, you just snap a photo of your food and add it to the app. Neighbors who live nearby, then get an alert, letting them know that some new food has been added in there that they can then browse the listings, request what they want and then you arrange the pickup by a private messaging within the app. The pickup takes place, sort of neighbor to neighbor generally on the doorstep. Although obviously it’s up to the person who’s added the listing, they can have the pickup location wherever they want it to be. And it’s worth pointing out that half of all food listings added earlier or requested in less than two hours. So the demand for this food is incredibly high. So actually, ironically, our challenge is not will people want to pick up food from their neighbor, our challenges the inverse, it’s how can we encourage more people to think that a neighbor would want their food and to get them to share it, rather than sort of tossing it in a bit in terms of how we got to where we are today.


So today, we’ve got 850,000 people have joined the Olio community, and they’ve shared well over 1.2 million portions of food, which is the environmental equivalent of taking about 3 million car miles off the road. So really, really exciting, although sort of would barely started our journey in terms of where we need to get to.


In terms of how we got to here, I think the most important thing was that we started very small. So the very first thing we did was desk research to research the problem of food waste. So I’d had this personal problem. But that didn’t mean to say that it was a problem that existed at scale.

So Sasha, my co founder, and I, we did this research, and we discovered all the steps that we’ve shared previously about the size of the problem of food waste. The next thing we did was a market research survey in which we sent out to friends and family and shared on Facebook groups, because we wanted to understand if this was a problem that people actually cared about or not. So it might be a problem on paper, but do people actually care? And the key data point coming out of that was that one in three people are physically pained, throwing away good food.


So we were we used to deliberately, extremely, which because we wanted to weed out people saying, Yeah, food waste is bad. So we were kind of thrilled, I guess, to see that data point, we’re like, wow, this means that this actually is a mainstream problem. It’s not just us who suffer from this is a widespread problem. But that doesn’t mean to say that people will take the next step of our hypothesis, which is that they would go to the effort to share their food with a neighbor.


And so Sasha and I wanted to test whether people would actually share food with a neighbor who wants to do that before we sunk all of our life savings into building an app that potentially no one would want.


So what we did was we invited 12 people who said that they were physically pain throw away good food from that market research survey. And we asked them to take part in the experiment, these people that we had never met, and they never met each other. But they all lived in proximity to one another.


For a period of two weeks, we put on a closed whatsapp group. We just said, if you ever have any food, you don’t want to the two week period, you can share it with these other people who are on the group. And we sort of waited with bated breath for sharing to take place. And thankfully, it did. And during that two week period, actually saw quite a lot of kind of neighbors, neighbors sharing, we then met with those participants at the end of the two weeks.


They essentially gave us three really important piece of feedback. One was you have to build this app. The second was, it only needs to be slightly better than a whatsapp group. And that was just such an important piece of feedback, because it meant that we just stripped out all the bells and whistles before launching. And then the third piece of feedback was, how can I help and those 12 people became our first ever ambassadors.


So these are kind of volunteers, we have 27,000 of them now that their volunteers were kind of helping spread the word about earlier in their local community. So that was sort of, I guess it started, you know, in that way, we then launched a pilot version of the app in five postcodes in North London. And we were just in pilot mode for about six months was we’re just trying to figure out how it all works. And it was only after that, that we opened up the app and made it available across the UK.


Did you have an idea of how Olio would make money?


11:14 – Rob


I was just wondering if you had a strategy from the start of how you potentially make profit or money from the app? Or was it more of a case of you just wanted to get something out there because you are so frustrated with the problem that you just wanted to get a solution? And then you sort of think about the monetary aspect later on?  Did you always have an idea of how it might work from that point of view?


11:34 – Tessa


Yeah, that’s a great question. So once we discovered the enormity of the problem of food waste, and I mean, it was just, it was a terrifying experience, realizing that this was the true state of the world, we became immediately committed to solving that problem. And we knew that it had to be solved at scale. And so if we wanted to solve it at scale, literally, you know, we need billions of people using earlier, then click really, we’re going to have to have a sustainable business model, because we’re not going to be able to sort of achieve that as a charity.


Having said that, we had lots of different ideas in terms of how we could generate revenues from earlier but we didn’t want to start off making money immediately, because we had so much to learn in terms of what the product was like, what the user experiences like. And it makes no sense to start generating revenues from 100 people, 1000 people, or even 10,000 people.


So actually, we didn’t generate any revenues at all for the first two years. And it was only a year ago that we first started generating revenues. And we, and that was in a way that we had never actually originally conceived, which was quite interesting. And some of the earlier ways that we had assumed would make money have since proven just not be fruitful at all.


But the way in which we started generating revenues is through charging with businesses, the service that we provide to enable their stores to preserve food waste. So we have volunteers who are called food waste heroes, and they collect food from the local store, take it home, add it to the app and redistribute it to the local community.


13:14 – Rob


Did you start thinking it was it’ll be sort of peer to peer person to person. And then it evolved from there into a lot more


13:21 – Tessa


in terms of the monetization piece, when we first launched earlier, we allowed people to sell their food on earlier, if they wanted to, it had to be at least 50% percent discount off of the original price. And we were then going to take a commission on every transaction that took place by the app. But what we very quickly discovered is that first of all, the commission model for marketplaces we used to exist for years ago is pretty much disappeared, now, it’s been competed away. And also, we found that people don’t really feel comfortable selling their food. And in a few instances where people did off, and they would set prices that were unrealistic. And that would then end up in the food not being requested and going to waste. So I think it was probably after about two years, we decided to remove all pricing from the app and just everything on free. It’s all about sort of share it forward, and everything on the app is free.


Is there still a psychological barrier to overcome with sharing food?


14:17 – Rob


Yeah, I really like that. I think creating that sort of level playing field makes it really simple and easy to get into and access rather than try to create a market which could get quite complicated. You mentioned that in your survey, that there’s not really a problem with people wanting to share, it is more the people knowing that there’s a market out there, how do you think we get over that barrier? Is it about spreading the message talking to one another? And do you think there is still a psychological barrier to get over for people when it comes to how we view waste, with things such as best before dates, do you think we still have quite a way to go in terms of getting over that psychological barriers that will


15:01 – Tessa


Yeah, so I don’t think there is a single sort of silver bullet answer to the problem of food waste. Sadly, there are lots of things that have to change and take place across all sectors of society. So governments need to really step up and start regulating and setting ambitious targets. Because that venture really sets the pace for businesses and also for the local authorities and for society. And without a doubt, there is work to be done around use by dates and best before dates, which can be very, very confusing to consumers.


But there’s also I think, a far broader point, which is the fact that actually, sadly, nowadays, we don’t really value food that much. And I think for a lot of people, we’ve become sort of anesthetized to the process of throwing away food. It’s just become so widespread, and so prevalent that people do it without even thinking about it.

So I think in order to change that, we’ve got to start off with driving awareness of the problem of food waste. Awareness of the scale of it, and get people really emotionally engaged in it, get them understanding how much water or energy or blood sweat and tears went into producing that one banana. That perhaps they don’t feel bad chucking one banana in the bin, but we need to make sure that everyone is aware that another 27 million households are also just chucking one banana in the bin today, and that collectively, these small actions actually do have a massive impact.


So at the moment, the small actions having massive impact very negatively, but it’s actually really exciting. If you flip it on its head, it’s like, wow, actually, if we all start to change our behaviors, then we can have a massive positive impact and really start to solve this problem


16:57 – Rob


We’ve got to obviously get to the point where everyone hopefully understands that it’s not just the environmental costs of throwing it away. But there’s a massive chain of different events that have gone into the production of that one piece of fruit. Yeah, where to go from, through all the stages.


17:12 – Tessa


Exactly. And I think that’s because we do have an enormously long supply chain in food. It starts off hundreds of thousands of miles away from ourselves. That’s species that have been driven into extinction, soil that’s been degraded, indigenous populations displaced all the biodiversity that’s being destroyed, to create something that ultimately is never used for the purpose for which it was intended. And then to make it even worse the food goes through that enormously long supply chain it ends up being thrown away into landfill, and food decomposes without access to oxygen creates methane, which is roughly 23 times more deadly than CO2. So just the whole thing is just to complete and utter mess.


Is food too cheap in supermarkets?


18:11 – Rob


I mentioned at the start about how we shouldn’t simply blame supermarkets for our food waste problem, as a large amount of the food is actually wasted within the home. However, do you think that supermarkets do have to take some of the blame for pricing food too cheaply, perhaps, and hence, maybe creating a problem where we don’t value food highly enough, and therefore we know if we’re quite happy to throw it away? I recently spoke to The Common Cause Foundation in a previous episode, who said, we should be careful in using financial incentives to drive better environmental behaviors. Otherwise, you end up convincing people that they should do things to save money rather than simply doing them because it’s the best thing for the environment but surely cost us to play a part here.


19:05 – Tessa


Well, so in terms of is food too cheap. If you look at all the data, the proportion of a typical families disposable income that is spent on food has fallen dramatically over the past 50 years.


However, sadly, there’s another indisputable fact, which is that in this country, we have 8.4 million people living in poverty. And half of those people are living in severe food poverty, which means they do not know where their next meal is coming from. And I do like to point out the 8 million people is approximately the size of population of London.


So this is just an enormous level of human suffering in a supposedly developed country. And so for me, putting up the price of food is not something that I would advocate, because there is all already an enormous amount of hunger in this country. So sadly, food is sort of too cheap for one group of people. And it’s too expensive for another.


It really is about valuing the food. And I think to help people value food you do, though, have to make it feel personal, relatable.


Just giving an example that I just come across recently of sort of environmental stats and how they’re presented. I saw a graphic the other day, which said that the amount of water that is used to produce one cotton t shirt is equivalent to how much you will drink in the next two and a half years, that was really, really, really shocking stats, because it just felt so personal, I can relate to a cotton t shirt that I might be buying. And I can relate to, whoa, how much water want to drink for two and a half years. In contrast, earlier on today, I saw something put out by large global, I guess, environmental body, which said that the amount of water that is wasted producing food never eaten is three times the size of Lake Geneva. You know, food that is never eaten by the world as a whole is an impossible thing for me to get my head around and so is Lake Geneva. I don’t know if that’s massive, if it’s tiny, and then have to multiply it by three times. So I do think that we can collectively do a lot of work to make the impact of food and wasting food just feel a lot more relatable.


I think also, it’s not just about scaring people with all this doom and gloom stuff. The flip side is what we talked about earlier. Do you know what? it is so much more fun to share food with a neighbor to give it to someone who wants it. And sometimes, sadly, even to give it someone who needs it. It feels 50 million times better than tossing it in the bin. So why not give it a try, you get to meet your neighbors, you feel safer in your local community, you feel more connected to the local community, you’re making someone feel happy every day. Like it’s just an awesome thing. And I think also we’re just tapping into something that human beings have been doing for millions of years, we’ve been sharing food for millions of years, we’ve just forgotten how to do it in the past 50 years.


Using food sharing to bring back communities


22:18 – Rob


I like the idea of trying to get that sense of local community back again, with the world moving more online, and people often moving between towns and cities more frequently for work. It seems like maybe that sense of local community is starting to fade in many parts of the world. And that leads to us not mixing with different types of people with different views and opinions. And causes the polarization that we’re starting to see in many areas. So anything that can be done to get that back is is a positive thing.


22:49 – Tessa


We are facing a loneliness epidemic, we are lonelier and more depressed than we have ever been. And so again, connecting with your neighbors, feeling like you belong for that you have friends is just a really powerful antidote to that.

What is next for Olio?


23:06 – Rob


What’s next, for Olio from here? I know you’ve got like a global reach now to have you got an idea of how many countries you’ve you’ve got to so far, and what sort of the next steps do you see in the plan from now on?


23:19 – Tessa


Yeah, so as I said, we’re 850,000 people join the audio community, they’ve shared 1.2 million portions of food. And we’ve seen about three quarters of that is we’re taking place within the UK, but of course, was taken place overseas, and we’ve had food successfully shared. So not just added to that, but added to the app, and someone else has picked it up in 47 countries so far, that’s an international growth that has taken place very organically. So it’s really thanks to our ambassadors, who just spreading the word about Olio and their local community. So we are just unbelievably excited and humbled, I guess, by what we’ve achieved so far. But we actually spend all of our time thinking about the future and what we need to achieve. Because if humanity you know, if we want to send any chances whatsoever of mitigating the worst effects of climate change, we have to solve the problem of food waste, and we have to solve it in the home. And so our goal is we want a billion people using earlier in 10 years time


24:19 – Rob


Wow, okay!


24:23 – Tessa


So we have barely even started


Could we see an Olio delivery service in the future?


24:26 – Rob


As Olio grows do you see a delivery service being added? I mean, there’s obviously other environmental issues with delivery services. But have you had ideas around that?


24:46 – Tessa


So in the early days, we did think a lot about that. But actually, the more Olio grows, the less need you have for any form of delivery. Because the number of people who signed up near you becomes more and more so where I am in North London, you can add a listing to the app, and I can probably one in 10 times, I will have a neighbor at my door in less than 10 minutes.


So there’s no need for a delivery service. And actually, our kind of vision for the world is one where instead of going to Amazon and buying everything brand new, and having it delivered by a drone. Instead, when we want something, the first thing we think is what can i sauce on my local neighborhood? What can I give a second life too, and that you will get you something sort of, you know, much faster than Amazon drones, in a way that is much more sustainable for the planet. And in a way that just is more enjoyable and feels good.


25:41 – Rob


There is an element of the app isn’t there is not just food, you can actually share other items is that right?


25:48 – Tessa


Yeah, so we have a non food section as well for toiletries, and cosmetics and books, toys, toys, etc.


25:55 – Rob


Well, I really love the idea. And I hope it continues to spread as it is doing. I’m going to try and use it more. I’ve used it a couple of times myself, I want to use it much more going forward.


One final question now, something a bit different, haven’t tried before. But I want to try and bring in future episodes. If you could come up with a message or inspirational quote that could appear on every billboard across the country for just one day, preferably with an environmental theme, but doesn’t have to be what would it be and why?


26:27 – Tessa


Well, funnily enough, we are, we are hoping to later on this year or next year be taking out exactly that sort of advertising. So I don’t know the answer to that yet. But clearly, it would be something along the lines, something sort of inspirational that would be encouraging people to give it a go and try, you know, radio covers today and try sharing with a neighbor.

Rob Wreglesworth

Rob is the head writer at Innovate Eco sharing knowledge and passion cultivated over 10 years working in the Environmental Sector. He is on a mission to build a community of people that are passionate about solving environmental problems.

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