Tackling food waste and climate change: Can one person really make a difference?


Tessa Clarke, co-founder of OLIO, says the food-sharing app now has over five million users who have shared over 35 million portions of food.


When it comes to preserving a healthy planet, you might think the actions of one individual are meaningless.

Tessa Clarke thinks it’s important to know, that’s far from the truth.

This lesson was driven home for the entrepreneur back in 2014 when Clarke was coming back to the United Kingdom from Switzerland. “I was moving between countries, and the moving men told me I had to throw away all my food,” she recalls. “I have a pathological hatred of food waste, and I just wasn’t prepared to do that. So I went around to find someone to give food to and failed miserably. At that moment I thought, ‘This is crazy, the lengths that I’m going to just to avoid throwing away food. There should be an app for this.’ And now there is.”

That app is OLIO. Created by Clarke and co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, it’s billed as a “Tinder for sustainable living,” allowing users to upload items they no longer need – perhaps you bought too many avocados, or maybe you’re off on a business trip and leaving behind a full fridge – and links them with others willing to take those items off their hands.

The logic for doing so is self-evident: Roughly one-third of all food being produced globally goes to waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. That’s at an annual value of more than $1 trillion (£756 billion). “The first thing we did was research the issue and what we discovered stunned and horrified us,” Clarke says. “It galvanised us to take action.”

Taking the first steps to live more sustainably

At first, the idea of redirecting one banana from a landfill to a neighbour’s table might not seem that Earth-changing. After all, problems like climate change and the survival of the planet seem massive and overwhelming, and the choices of one person might not feel sufficient enough to move the needle.

Collectively, though, it’s a different story. Those small daily actions, multiplied by millions or even billions of people, matter very much indeed – and, in turn, will determine how governments and corporations decide to act.

For OLIO, the proof is in the pudding: Clarke’s app now has over five million users, who have shared over 35 million portions of food. Helping make it all happen are 35,000 “Food Waste Heroes,” volunteers who manage details such as pickup and delivery.

At those levels, the math becomes very appetising indeed. At a moment in history when humanity is nearing a tipping point, this kind of waste prevention on a global scale could have a very real effect on what our planet will look like moving forward.

So Clarke herself has obviously made a massive difference, with her app that originally grew out of a WhatsApp test group, to see whether neighbours would share food with each other. (They did.) But how can individuals minimise their own footprint and maximise their own impact?

“My top action tips? First of all, stop wasting food, and give it away instead of throwing it away,” she says. “Another thing is to tackle the source of single-use plastics in the home. Approach your actions like a game, pick one change to make per week. Fix one problem, and then move on to the next.

“Another thing is to talk to your friends and neighbours about what you’re doing and why.”

It’s amazing how that inspires people to take action, because only collectively will we create the impact we want,” says Tessa Clarke, co-founder of OLIO.

OLIO isn’t just a solution for individuals, though. It also partners with large organisations to compound its results. With supermarket chain Tesco, for instance, OLIO takes food nearing the end of its shelf life and redistributes it to prevent it from being thrown away.

That just makes “smart business sense” for corporations, says Clarke. Instead of paying fees to disposal companies to cart everything away, the food actually ends up on people’s tables. Meanwhile, that firm burnishes its own sustainability initiatives and comes closer to the “net-zero” impact goals every organisation is striving for these days.

OLIO’s mission has only been accelerated by the global COVID-19 crisis. With so many households isolated and facing their own financial challenges over the past couple of years, the idea of connecting and resource-sharing became absolutely critical.

“We grew fivefold in 2020 and I think it’s because everything about our mission is resonating now,” says Clarke. “It was a perfect storm: During the pandemic, people recognised the value of food and other essential items, and naturally wanted to connect with their communities to give and receive.”

Indeed, OLIO’s results have been so encouraging that the app has expanded beyond just food, and beyond just the UK. You can now share any manner of household items, such as toiletries, books, clothes and toys. And the app is expanding quickly in markets around the world, from Mexico and Singapore to New Zealand and Sweden, says Clarke.

Despite the growth, they’ve seen already, Clarke’s goals are even loftier: a billion users worldwide by 2030.

“The reasons for that are straightforward: Humanity stands no chance whatsoever unless we connect ourselves at scale, and start giving away rather than throwing away,” she says. “Rather than destroying the planet by constantly buying brand-new items, we need to utilise the resources that already exist.”

Read more about sustainability pressures and investing in ideas of the future.

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