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Technology to support the green agenda in retail is “the new shiny thing, but it’s also a permanent fixture”, said retail analyst Miya Knights, speaking to Computer Weekly at the end of 2021.
It’s hard to disagree. Tesco and Marks & Spencer have this year initiated searches for startups to drive eco-related change in their organisations, while Net-a-Porter and Mulberry have inserted digital IDs into clothing to boost supply chain transparency.
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), around 14% of food produced globally is lost between harvest and retail.
The UN estimates 17% of total global food production is wasted – 11% in households, 5% in food service and 2% in retail.
Food that is lost or wasted accounts for 38% of total energy usage in the global food system, making it a clear area where carbon savings can be made.
Enter the apps. Grocers from Tesco to Iceland, as well as convenience chains and coffee shops, are linking up with the growing array of tech platforms to tackle food waste.
The bin as a common enemy
In July, frozen food supermarket chain Iceland announced a partnership with Olio, an app-led company aiming to stop food waste by re-distributing it in UK communities.
The tie-up will see members from Olio’s “food waste heroes” network, a 50,000-strong group of trained volunteers, visit Iceland stores after opening hours to collect surplus food, take it home, list it on the app and distribute it for free to consumers in need.
Olio – which also works with Tesco and thousands of smaller food businesses across the UK – trialled its service with Iceland in 2021, resulting in 4,000 meals redistributed among 240 families.
In addition to the sustainability improvements, Iceland’s managing director, Richard Walker, spoke of 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 a clear retailer business case for adopting this type of partnership, too.
Tessa Clarke, co-founder & CEO of Olio, says: “Retailers are recognising if they are to fulfil net-zero plans they are going to have to reduce their food waste.
“We saw a dramatic uptick in interest for our service as of the beginning of 2021,” she says. “That is coupled with employees being dissatisfied with throwing away perfectly good food each day.”
Food waste prevention apps
Several other factors are conspiring to help increase interest in food waste prevention apps, says Clarke, whose platform has close to one million product listings per month.
Clarke talks of the influential TikTok trend where users shame businesses for throwing away “perfectly good food”. She also says the June arrival of a delayed consultation into mandatory food waste data reporting is another reason for retailer interest.
Another player in this burgeoning landscape is Too Good to Go (TGTG), an app-based company that retailers are teaming up with to help maximise revenue from items close to their sell-by date. TGTG works with Costa Coffee, Morrisons and Blakemore Retail, among others.
TGTG users can purchase “magic bags” of would-be food waste from participating retailers before collecting these goods from stores. In some cases, bags containing £10 worth of food can be procured for £3.
Another app, Gander, launched in 2019, listing discounted end-of-shelf-life items in retail stores. It was first unveiled in partnership with Henderson Group, a Northern Ireland-based wholesale, convenience retail and technology organisation.
Approximately 450 stores, including several Spar shops, are linked to the Gander app. Every time a price reduction is enacted in-store, the Gander app automatically adds that product to its inventory.
Darren Nickels, retail technology operations director at Henderson Technology, says: “Our retailers’ sell-through rate is 87% on average – that has gone up by nearly 18% since introducing Gander without really any other in-store processes changing.
“We’re selling food on – not wasting it – and not paying for stock to be taken away,” he says. “There are multiple benefits helping the bottom line.
“Customers value it, especially in these challenging economic times when they are looking for more cost-effective ways of feeding themselves.”
Elsewhere, tech company Winnow develops artificial intelligence tools to help chefs in large commercial kitchens – including Ikea’s – cut their food waste. Throw No More – established in Norway – is another business helping redistribute surplus food from retail, highlighting a fertile landscape for food waste prevention technology.
Clarke acknowledges there are lots of players in the ecosystem, and admits there is a need to work more closely together where possible. She does not view other apps as competitors, though – there is only one competitor, in her eyes.
“Reducing food waste is imperative, and the scale of the problem is mind bogglingly enormous, therefore by definition it is going to require a mosaic of solutions,” she says.
“We consider other players in the space very much as colleagues rather than competitors. The real competitor is the bin or landfill – that represents the common enemy.”
Where tech plays its part
A recent hiring spree at Olio underlines technology as a great enabler in helping to reduce food waste. In March, it made eight major hires, raiding some of the biggest technology companies to shape its senior team. Fabían Díaz joined from Amazon as chief technology officer, while other directors were recruited from Deliveroo and Uber, respectively.
Iona Carter, former brand strategist and customer experience lead for Plum Guide and Sony Music, joined as chief brand officer, while Alex Higgs arrived as chief product officer, having previously held senior roles at Just Eat, Tripadvisor and Confused.com.
Olio integrates with charity Fareshare’s tech systems as part of its work with Tesco. The retailer’s staff reports what surplus food is available, and the charity has first pick of items before Olio volunteers can select the rest.
The Olio platform runs on Amazon Web Services, and has been built using React Native and Ruby on Rails software frameworks.
Clarke says retailers are keen on the impact data Olio can provide – every month it tells them how many people were fed, how much food was saved, the carbon emissions avoided and amount of water saved by using its services.
Nickels says the key to the success of the Gander app is its connection with Henderson Group’s EDGEPoS retail management system. It includes a “real-time view” of markdowns, with items automatically removed from Gander as they are bought.
“We felt integration was key – something that didn’t add to the store processes by creating more back office functions,” he says. “It ties in with reporting and financial figures, and it is all contained in one system within the store.”
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Sweden-based Whywaste is another company operating in the food waste reduction space. It has an array of tech tools to help retailers analyse potential food waste issues before they arise, as well as analytics that allow store staff to mark down goods in the most optimal way.
Prevention rather than the cure to food waste problems is the mantra of Kristoffer Hagstedt, founder of Whywaste. Asda is currently trialling Whywaste’s Semafor, a digital date-checking offering that identifies products which are close to their expiry dates.
“We have rolled it out so store staff are prompted with a list of products which are at risk of expiring in the coming days,” says Hagstedt. “Instead of assessing the whole store, staff only need to focus on a few products where they can take action before it expires.”
Asda started the pilot in one store in 2020, but it expects to complete roll-out of the technology to all stores by the end of 2022.
Waste process manager Andrew Hudson says Asda is “constantly looking for technologies and tools” to aid waste reduction efforts.
“We have had great feedback from our stores and we are excited by the positive impact this new technology will have,” he says.
No time to waste
Whywaste was a 2019 finalist in The ECR Food Waste Innovation Challenge, run annually by retailer network ECR Retail Loss Group and innovation agency Co:cubed. The competition thrust Whywaste into the view of retailers around the globe.
Anyone designing concepts to prevent, re-use, or reduce retail food waste has the potential to follow them by applying for this year’s challenge. The 10 best concepts will be invited to pitch their ideas to 50-plus retailers at an industry event in November.
This continual search for new innovation and ideas in this space underlines the scale of the challenge. Retailer engagement is fuelled by a desire to do better by the planet, but also by net-zero targets and potential forthcoming legislation.
“Regulation is on the way, and is focusing the mind of retailers,” says Siobhan Gehin, senior partner at Roland Berger, a consultancy.
Like Hagstedt, she says UK retailers are “fairly advanced” in terms of how they redistribute surplus food compared with other countries, and suggests the specialist apps play “a really important role” in tackling the problem of food waste. “If I had to bet on it, more will spring up rather than us seeing consolidation in this market,” she says.
Gehin’s comments come as climate change non-government organisation 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 overall UK food supply chain, Wrap said retail was the largest supplier of surplus food to charities in 2021, ahead of the food service and manufacturing sectors – but clearly more can be done, and retailers are increasingly looking to tech to help them.