Retailers choose from a menu of mobile apps to help reduce food waste
Technology to support the green agenda in retail is “the shiny new thing, but it’s also a permanent fixture,” said retail analyst Miya Knights, speaking to Computer Weekly in late 2021. .
It’s hard to disagree. Tesco and Marks & Spencer this year launched searches for startups to drive environment-related change in their organisations, while Net-a-Porter and Mulberry inserted digital IDs into clothing to boost chain transparency supply.
And there are a growing number of retailers exploring the technology market focused on reducing food waste, which is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the United Nations (UN), approximately 14% of food produced globally is lost between harvest and retail.
The UN estimates that 17% of total global food production is wasted – 11% in households, 5% in catering and 2% in retail.
Lost or wasted food accounts for 38% of total energy consumption in the global food system, making this a clear area where carbon savings can be made.
Enter apps. Grocers from Tesco to Iceland, as well as convenience store chains and cafes, are connecting to the growing range of tech platforms to tackle food waste.
The trash can as a common enemy
In July, the Icelandic frozen food supermarket chain announced a partnership with Olio, an app-driven company aiming to stop food waste by redistributing it in UK communities.
The tie-up will see members of Olio’s ‘food waste heroes’ network, a group of 50,000 trained volunteers, visiting Icelandic stores after hours to collect leftover food, bring it home, list it on application and distribute them free of charge to consumers in need.
Olio – which also works with Tesco and thousands of small food businesses across the UK – piloted its service with Iceland in 2021, which saw 4,000 meals redistributed to 240 families.
Along with sustainability improvements, Iceland’s chief executive Richard Walker explained how the initiative “will provide access to free food across the UK at a time when the cost of living continues to increase”.
Multiple societal benefits are expected, but there is also a clear business case for retailers to embrace this type of partnership.
Tessa Clarke, co-founder and CEO of Olio, says, “Retailers recognize that if they are to meet net zero plans, they will need to reduce their food waste.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in interest in our service starting in early 2021,” she says. “That’s on top of the fact that employees aren’t happy throwing away perfectly good food every day.”
Food Waste Prevention Apps
Several other factors are contributing to increased interest in food waste prevention apps, says Clarke, whose platform has nearly a million product listings per month.
Clarke talks about the influential TikTok trend where users are shaming companies for throwing away “perfectly good food.” She also says the arrival in June of a delayed consultation on mandatory reporting of food waste data is another reason for retailer interest.
Another player in this burgeoning landscape is Too Good to Go (TGTO), an app-based company that retailers partner with to help maximize revenue from items nearing their best-before date. TGTG works with Costa Coffee, Morrisons and Blakemore Retail, among others.
TGTG users can purchase “magic bags” of potential food waste from participating retailers before collecting these goods from stores. In some cases bags containing £10 worth of food can be purchased for £3.
Another app, Gander, launched in 2019, lists discounted end-of-life items at retail stores. It was first unveiled in partnership with Henderson Group, a wholesale, convenience and technology organization based in Northern Ireland.
Around 450 stores, including several Spar stores, are linked to the Gander app. Whenever a price reduction is applied in-store, the Gander app automatically adds that product to its inventory.
Darren Nickels, Director of Retail Technology Operations at Henderson Technology, says, “Our retailers’ sell-through rate is 87% on average, which has increased by almost 18% since introducing Gander without the other in-store processes don’t really change.
“We sell food – we don’t waste it – and we don’t pay for the stock to be taken away,” he says. “There are multiple benefits that help the bottom line.
“Customers appreciate it, especially in these tough economic times when they are looking for more cost effective ways to feed themselves.”
Elsewhere, tech company Winnow is helping commercial organizations – including Ikea – find a home for surplus food prepared by restaurants. Throw No More – based in Norway – is another company operating with similar principles and ambitions, highlighting a fertile landscape for food waste prevention technology.
Clarke acknowledges that there are many players in the ecosystem and admits there is a need to work more closely together whenever possible. However, she doesn’t see other apps as competitors – there’s only one competitor, in her eyes.
“Reducing food waste is imperative, and the scale of the problem is incredibly huge, so by definition it’s going to require a patchwork of solutions,” she says.
“We view other space players as colleagues rather than competitors. The real competitor is the trash can or landfill – which represents the common enemy.”
Where Technology Plays Its Part
A recent wave of hiring at Olio highlights that technology is a great enabler to help reduce food waste. In March, he made eight major hires, attacking some of the biggest tech companies to build his senior team. Fabían Díaz has joined Amazon as chief technology officer, while other administrators have been recruited from Deliveroo and Uber respectively.
Iona Carter, former brand strategist and head of customer experience for Plum Guide and Sony Music, has joined as chief brand officer, while Alex Higgs has arrived as chief product officer, having held positions executives at Just Eat, Tripadvisor and Confused.com.
Olio integrates with Fareshare Association technology systems as part of its work with Tesco. Retailer staff flag any excess food available, and the charity selects items first before Olio volunteers can select the rest.
The Olio platform runs on Amazon Web Services and was built using React Native and Ruby on Rails software frameworks.
Clarke says retailers are interested in the impact data Olio can provide – each month it tells them how many people were fed, how much food was saved, carbon emissions avoided and how much water saved by using its services.
Nickels says the key to the Gander app’s success is its connection to Henderson Group’s EDGEPoS retail management system. It includes a “real-time view” of markdowns, with items automatically removed from Gander as they are purchased.
“We thought integration was key – something that didn’t add anything to store processes by creating more back-office functions,” he says. “It’s linked to financial reports and figures, and it’s all contained in one system within the store.”
Another company operating in the field of food waste reduction is Whywaste, based in Sweden. It has a range of technology tools to help retailers analyze potential food waste issues before they arise, as well as analytics that enable store staff to mark merchandise in the most optimal way.
Preventing rather than curing food waste problems is the mantra of Kristoffer Hagstedt, founder of Whywaste. Asda is currently testing Whywaste’s Semafor, a digital date verification offering that identifies products close to their expiration date.
“We rolled it out so that store staff would receive a list of products that might expire in the next few days,” says Hagstedt. “Instead of evaluating the entire store, staff only need to focus on a few products they can act on before it expires.”
Asda launched the pilot in one store in 2020, but expects to complete the rollout of the technology to all stores by the end of 2022.
Waste handling manager Andrew Hudson said Asda is “constantly looking for technologies and tools” to help with waste reduction efforts.
“We’ve had great feedback from our stores and are excited about the positive impact this new technology will have,” he said.
No time to waste
Whywaste was a 2019 finalist in the ECR Food Waste Innovation Challenge, organized annually by retailer network ECR Retail Loss Group and innovation agency Co:cubed. The contest propelled Whywaste into the eyes of retailers around the world.
Anyone designing concepts to prevent, reuse or reduce retail food waste has the potential to follow them by applying for this year’s challenge. The top 10 concepts will be invited to pitch their ideas to over 50 retailers at an industry event in November.
This continued search for new innovations and ideas in this space highlights the magnitude of the challenge. Retailer engagement is fueled by a desire to do better for the planet, but also by net zero targets and potential upcoming legislation.
“Regulation is on the way and is on the minds of retailers,” says Siobhan Gehin, senior partner at Roland Berger, a consulting firm.
Like Hagstedt, she says UK retailers are “fairly advanced” in how they redistribute food surpluses compared to other countries, and suggests specialist apps are playing a “really big part” in solving the problem of food waste. “If I were to bet on that, more would pop up rather than seeing consolidation in that market,” she says.
Gehin’s comments come as climate change non-governmental organization Wrap released a report in July showing that despite better redistribution efforts, 200,000 tonnes of perfectly good food was wasted in 2021.
Assessing the entire UK food supply chain, Wrap said retail was the biggest supplier of surplus food to charities in 2021, ahead of the catering and manufacturing sectors – but it is clear that more can be done, and retailers are increasingly turning to technology to help them.