From top chefs to Tesco, we’re happy to see high profile names leading the discussion on eliminating unnecessary food waste. And it’s about time. Food waste costs the hospitality industry over $100 billion annually, and kitchens can waste up to 20 percent of food purchased, often equivalent to their total net profits. Likewise, in UK homes chucking food in the bin can cost families £700 per year, and leads to 7.3 million tonnes ending up in landfill where it rots and releases those troublesome greenhouse gases... We are literally throwing money away.
At the forefront of the food waste movement (and making food waste solutions as sexy as is conceivably possible) is London-based company Winnow Solutions. Winnow develops innovative technology to help chefs achieve greater visibility in their kitchens, as well as make better decisions that lead to dramatically reduced food waste and costs. Its mission is to engage commercial kitchens and create a movement of chefs that inspires others to see that food is too valuable to waste.
We spoke to the co-founder of Winnow, Marc Zornes, to discover the journey he and Winnow have come on, and how they have saved 10 million meals and nearly 20 thousand tonnes of CO2 along the way…
What first brought the global food waste challenge, and how to tackle it, to your attention?
My first real experience around sustainability, and when my passion for it was ignited, was when I was working at the US Green Building Council – one of the world leaders in green building certification.
When I joined the USGBC, I was helping them roll out the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programme for retail. LEED is a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings. At the time, I was amazed by the number of common sense business decisions that could make them more environmentally friendly, whilst making the business more efficient at the same time. I just saw a tremendous number of win-wins.
So that’s what got me excited about sustainability in the first place and, while I was there, McKinsey & Company also released their Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve Version 2, which began to change the way that Washington DC and policymakers were talking about sustainability – focusing on the things that made economic sense.
I was inspired. I thought, “this is something that meets my values. I know that I want to solve the biggest challenge that our generation has, which is to figure out we can live on this Earth in a sustainable way without wrecking it, and I’m very excited by how business can be a force to make that happen”.
From then, I decided that I wanted to work for McKinsey in London. There, I had the opportunity to work in the Sustainability and Resource Productivity Practice, and write a report called ‘Resource Revolution’ with McKinsey Global Institute. It was in that report that food waste was highlighted as this massive issue that no one was really looking at, and that was the inspiration for me founding Winnow. And that’s where my journey with Winnow began.
Wow… So what happened next?
I built Winnow with the belief that, if I could build a company that was actually solving a problem, and which was scalable, then I would have an ever-increasing amount of resources to try to change and shape the industry, right? And that’s been the ambition of Winnow ever since. We are for-profit – we attract classic investment, people who are looking for a financial return – but we do so in a way that, by our business model and design, we care about just one number: how much food waste we are preventing.
Happily, reducing food waste equates to money saved for our clients. The more of our technology we put in the field, and the more influence we have over the market on reducing food waste, the larger our ambition becomes. There is no trade-off for us between our economic objectives and our social objectives – I mean literally none.
Yep, that’s smart. What actually is the technology?
The Winnow Waste Monitor makes it quick and easy to record exactly how food is being wasted through smart meter technology attached to your food waste bin. However, we started off with me taking a scale and a tablet, saran wrapping that tablet onto the scale, getting the data, analysing it myself, and playing it back to the culinary team to understand why they were throwing away food.
Our analyses showed that we had something here which could actually drive meaningful change. We then partnered with the Sustainable Restaurant Association on a project called FoodSave, where we put Winnow into around 100 small businesses in London to understand where food waste was being generated and prove that the model was replicable. That was the launchpad for us to really grow.
Winnow has since evolved – our tech has become more advanced and we have recognised that the sweet spot for now is to work with larger organisations, for which we can help to drive meaningful change across their entire business. So we work with companies that want to set bold targets to prevent food waste. For them, it’s about showing them how they can save money using our technology, and set an example around food waste prevention to help drive change for the greater good.
Today we work in over thirty countries, we are saving our clients $16 million per year in food costs, we are preventing one meal from being wasted every two seconds, and we work with global brands like IKEA, Carnival Cruise Line, Compass Group and many others. Our ambition is to continue to scale what we are doing to prevent more food being wasted, but also to drive industry-wide change.
What is the main source of food waste for foodservice companies at the moment?
It’s an interesting preconception that avoidable food waste happens on the plate. It actually mainly happens in overproduction, over-purchasing and a lack of tools to understand how much to make. If you monitor food waste you can actually strike a much better balance on that.
There is an opportunity to prevent food waste on plates though. More intelligent portion sizes, communication with customers, organisation of buffets, etc. The solutions aren’t rocket science. However, unless you’re monitoring progress, there’s no way to see what’s working and what’s not.
There has been a step-change in people’s attitudes towards waste in the past year or two – particularly around plastic and food waste. There wasn’t as much awareness just three years ago… Has this helped?
Absolutely, we’ve moved from being crazy to being right. That’s always the best place to be – you just have to make sure you’re not crazy for too long!
One of the barriers to being more sustainable, both for people and for companies, is being bold enough to go against the grain and lead by example. In your experience, how open are companies to change?
Not everyone is a visionary. We are lucky enough to have had clients who are visionary enough to look at what can be done. The role of these visionary organisations is to show people the results, to show that the impact is real. Then others follow and say, “this is a must do”.
I think scepticism can also come from lack of awareness of the size of the problem. And, beyond that, once they recognise that there is a problem it’s about being able to take a risk and invest some resource into making a change.
Compass Group and IKEA are known for being visionary - for always asking how to find solutions to sustainability challenges. And they take that approach because, yes, it creates a reputational advantage for them, but they also know it's a good way to maximise the efficiency of their operations.
So is minimising food waste mainly about economics or the environment for your clients?
I think that people do it for various, interrelated reasons. The thing I like about food waste is that it’s an environmental and economic issue, but also an ethical issue. The thing that I personally struggle with most is when people throw away meat. Yesterday, I had to throw out some pork, and it absolutely killed me because there’s an animal that gave its life to be in my refrigerator so I could consume it. It’s gut-wrenching because I find it disrespectful, throwing it away.
I think the important thing to realise is that our business delivers multiple times return on the initial investment in year one. I don’t think this is an either/or; I think all our clients do it for all three reasons – economic, environmental and ethical.
What are the challenges with Winnow technology in smaller businesses, and do you have aspirations to work with them in future?
For me, I’m a very rational person, and if the question is “how do I deliver the most impact per dollar?”, then starting with the bigger companies is where our investment will go the furthest. And when I’m done convincing all the larger companies, then I will move on to smaller companies.
It takes a similar amount of time to get a large organisation onboard as a smaller one so, if I’m going to do that, why not focus first on the bigger companies spending the most on food? Eventually, if SMEs want to work with us, I would be keen to – I think they’re a vital part of the solution. And, actually, they can often be more innovative than large businesses.
Other than directly helping the industry cut food waste, what impacts have you seen Winnow have on the industry and society more broadly?
We’re on a mission to create a movement of chefs and inspire others to see that food is too valuable to waste. So my most rewarding moments are when we get chefs who use Winnow and see the opportunity, and then become advocates for the movement. We hope, of course, that they also become advocates for our product! But for the movement first.
Chefs have a unique place in the world: they are the culinary ambassadors and they set the food culture around the world. There’s a lot of food waste happening at home – in aggregate, there’s more food waste happening at home than in restaurants. So if we can get the chef community engaged with reducing food waste, and pass the message on to their guests that food is too valuable to waste, then you drive a broader culture change.
IKEA’s catalogue is the largest print publication in the world, and it has a page on what they’re doing about food waste. Their desire is to make change for themselves, but by putting it in their catalogue they inspire their customers to do the same. I found that hugely rewarding and inspiring. That’s the kind of change I want to see.
So do you think we’re on the way to solving the food waste issue?
Let’s not be shy about this – we don’t have time to spare. This is a serious issue. In my lifetime I will live with the impact of climate change. This is not about trying to do something that is marginal – this needs systemic, fast change. I’m playing my part by doing what I’m good at, which is building businesses and scaling technology, but, frankly, the industry needs to hurry up. We don’t have much time to spare.
What journey do you see Winnow taking over the next five years?
Five years is a long horizon – it’s longer than we’ve been in business – so it’s hard to postulate. The next twelve months is about doing more of the same at a greater scale, continuing to bring more and more visionary companies into the fold.
If you look to two or three years out, we want to continue to push our product forward and, yes, smaller restaurant groups are definitely something we’ll be looking at. Other areas of the food supply chain are also important to us. It’s very simple – I’m on a mission to solve this problem. So whatever it’s going to take to solve it, on as big a scale as I can, that’s my goal for Winnow.
What is the ideal food waste scenario to aim for in our society?
I think it’s entirely plausible to reduce food waste by fifty percent. However, that would take widespread accountability, measurement and action plans to drive food waste down. There will always be some food that is wasted, and I think there is a place for composting to recycle those nutrients. But there is a huge opportunity in prevention which has to be tackled first.
So an ideal place is a world where food waste is halved and the remainder is recycled. Of course, the more prevented the better but if someone asked “when will you consider your life’s work done?”, it’s when we’re at that point.
On a personal level, do you have any sustainable habits that you live by?
I do think about how we can keep our environmental impact as low as possible in our home. That’s everything from lighting to heating, and various other things. I like looking for solutions to help me achieve that. I also try to reuse products where I can, and I cycle to work every day.
The way I see it, I’m entirely content. I don’t need more. A sustainable food future should and will be delicious. A sustainable lifestyle is healthy and enjoyable. You can have things that are enjoyable but sustainable at the same time. You may need to be willing to pay a slight premium to have those things, but actually making extended use of them saves costs anyway.
For people interested in the sustainability of food, there are a few groups I’m a huge fan of: The Slow Food movement, the YFood group – which is based in London and promotes the food technology scene – and the Eat Foundation. The Eat Foundation drives conversation about the future of food – how we will provide the growing global population with a nutritious diet within safe environmental limits.
It seems that Marc is on more than just a journey with Winnow – he is on a personal mission. As ever, tech solutions that ultimately boost profits drive the quickest change within industry. We need more innovation like this. If we don’t take swift action, the food waste problem for us and future generations will weigh as heavily as the waste we’re trying to eliminate. With more business-savvy solutions like this, perhaps the world’s biggest sustainability problems will be chucked out sooner than we think.
To find out more about what Winnow is up to, visit their blog.