Business appetite for tackling food waste could lead to international rollout for Neighbourly

EXCLUSIVE: As businesses push to create ever-more holistic approaches to their role in tackling food waste and social issues, social platform Neighbourly is on the brink of an international rollout driven not by the enterprise itself, but by its clients.

That is according to the platform’s new chief executive, Steve Butterworth, who was announced as the successor to the original holder of the title, Luke McKeever, at the end of last month.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Butterworth revealed that the next phase of the platform’s development would “more than likely” involve the expansion of its existing partnerships with the likes of Lidl, Heineken and Starbucks into new markets.

“The challenge going forward is asking how we can scale at a pace that will meet our customer demand, and I would say the international driver for us is very much being driven by our existing clients,” Butterworth said.

“The success we have had with them in the UK has led into conversations with them asking how they can take the next step with us and launch similar initiatives in mainland Europe or the US.”

Butterworth noted that Neighbourly, which has redistributed 3.22 million meals and almost six tonnes of sundries such as cleaning and laundry products, toiletries and pet food, since its launch in 2015, is “at a crossroads” where it must choose between expanding its efforts within the UK or allowing the appetite of its current clients to take it abroad.

Expanding on why so many businesses are now partnering with Neighbourly and similar enterprises such as FareShare, Butterworth claimed that corporates and SMEs alike are becoming more aware of their potential to tackle waste and champion sustainability, but undertaking redistribution schemes alone often poses too many logistical challenges – including cost limitations, time constraints and the remit of the receiving charities.

“By working with us, [other organisations] are tapping into existing relationships which speeds up the deployment of these programmes, and what we have found is that clients do want to make as big a difference as possible, as fast as possible,” Butterworth said.

“Our clients are realising that giving waste to charities at the end of the day is wonderful, but that the challenge doesn’t stop there and taking a more holistic approach that is not just about the food, but about issues such as storage and distribution once it reaches their partner charities.”

Tackling the food waste mountain

Butterworth, who joined Neighbourly after various job roles across the investor and strategic planning sectors, emphasised that food waste collections are the platform’s “most transactional” service due to their high frequency – something he sees as coupled with how emotive the issue of wasted food is with the general public.

But another key factor driving more regular and diverse donations, in his opinion, is an evolving business mindset and an increased willingness from corporates to do their bit in reducing the 260,000 tonnes of food wasted by British retailers each year.

Responding to Butterworth’s comments, Lidl’s UK CSR manager Mark Newbold said: “At Lidl UK, we understand the important role we play in reducing food waste, which is why we have set ourselves the ambitious goal of cutting food waste from our stores by 25% per store sq ft by 2020, and Neighbourly is an important partner to help us achieve this.

“Through our Feed it Back initiative, and with the Neighbourly platform’s help, we have been connecting our stores to local good causes and providing millions of meals for those in need.” 

He added that the nationwide rollout of the initiative was “almost complete”, confirming that Lidl would share this best practice model with its other markets. 

Citing the example of Co-op, which recently announced it would stop the “last-minute” sale of fresh foods to get edible products to charities on time, Butterworth also noted that business attitudes towards redistribution schemes had shifted.

“What should be applauded is that growing willingness [among retailers] to proactively try something a bit different,” he said. “This is no longer a ‘tick-box’ issue where companies are satisfied with being seen to do the right thing; there is a growing willingness on all sides to embed doing the right thing in the entire business strategy and make it an integral part.”

Despite this promising trend, Butterworth maintained that retail waste remains the “thin end of the wedge”, with supply chain waste and consumer waste remaining the two largest contributors to the UK’s food waste mountain, accounting for 2.85 million tonnes and 7.1 million tonnes each year respectively according to the latest data from WRAP.

Nonetheless, challenges in driving consumer behaviour change persist in the supermarket industry, as evidenced by Sainsbury’s‘ recent abandonment of its £10m project to halve food waste in Swandlicote after a year-long trial produced undesirable results.

But Butterworth remains optimistic on the nation’s progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 2, which aims to end hunger by 2030.

“I would personally say there is great awareness of the fact that there are big food issues, as well as ways and means of making the surplus go further and into the right places, and that this has been the case for decades,” he concluded.

“Making redistribution more effective is a perennial and ever-evolving challenge in which Neighbourly is a small cog in a big wheel.”

Sarah George

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