Tessa Clarke, co-founder of sharing app OLIO, on how she’s horrified about global food waste, teaching kids to live more sustainably, why her most powerful decision as a parent was to buy reusable nappies, and how she’s enabling SG to share (not waste) soon-to-expire groceries
Mum of two kids, Tessa Clarke, co-founded OLIO, the world’s largest free sharing app that connects neighbours to help them share (rather than bin) food and household items. OLIO is now used in 62 countries globally including Singapore where there are over 100,000 users. Tessa lets us in on the craziest thing she’s seen shared on the OLIO app (it’s something you keep in your mouth!), how she gets her kids on board with living a more sustainable life (even if it means fewer birthday pressies) and how OLIO is doing good in Singapore by enabling partners like pandamart to share items nearing their shelf-life with the community for free.
How do you teach your kids about plastic pollution, recycling and living a “greener’ life?
My kids (7 and 9) have played an integral part in the OLIO journey. Before COVID, I took them on a Schools for Climate gathering which they really enjoyed, and since then I’ve spoken to them a lot about the climate crisis and the problem with plastic pollution too.
It’s amazing how much they understand and we’ve turned it into a bit of a family game to swap out unsustainable things for more sustainable ones (see my tips below). One of the pledges we’ve made is to get as many things secondhand as possible, and I’ve been really surprised at how little the kids care about brand new – they just want something that’s brand new to them!
They also really enjoy taking the information they’ve learned about the climate crisis and sharing it with anyone who will listen – their friends, teachers and other adults – so they’re little change-makers too! However, sometimes they do get very sad about the state of the world. That breaks my heart and it makes me even more resolved to do everything I can to try and fix the climate crisis.
What have you found are the biggest challenges to living a more sustainable lifestyle with kids?
When they were babies, the single most powerful decision I made was to buy a set of reusable nappies. I did that because I saw a photo of how many disposable nappies a single child uses in a lifetime and couldn’t bear for that be the first real impact my children had on the world. I also bought some re-usable wipes and some washable nappy bags and found that this sustainable system worked really well for over 90% of the nappies they used. I also had some of the more environmentally-friendly disposable nappies for those occasions when it was just too difficult to use re-usables, as I felt it was important not to beat myself up too much to get to perfection.
Other challenges I’ve encountered have been birthdays and Christmas, when well-meaning relatives want to gift the kids an enormous amount of plastic toys, often with little pieces that break or get lost incredibly quickly. What we’ve agreed as a family is for the kids to write wishlists so we can make sure they only get the gifts they really want. Where possible we do the research to find a more environmentally-friendly version, or see if we can buy it second hand.
The other challenge has been around food, especially in the early years – one day their favourite food would suddenly become their most hated food! Luckily, I had OLIO – so we could just give away anything they didn’t want, which was an enormous relief. We’ve used OLIO to gift a lot of their outgrown clothes and shoes too. It feels really amazing to pass something on to another family who really wants it.
Read more: 7 Single-Use Swaps to Reduce Plastic Waste
How did the idea for OLIO come about?
The inspiration for OLIO came when I was moving countries and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. So I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably.
I’m a farmer’s daughter and have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it! Through the whole process, it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. That was when the idea of OLIO, a free sharing app, came about.
Once I had the original idea, I started to research the problem of food waste with my co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, and what we discovered shocked and horrified us. It’s no exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the largest problems facing humanity today – one-third of all food produced globally gets thrown away while 800 million people go to bed hungry. And if it were to be a country, food waste would be the 3rd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China. Once we’d discovered all this, we knew we absolutely had to launch OLIO!
Give us a quick rundown on how OLIO works.
OLIO exists to tackle the problem of waste in our homes and local communities, and we do this by connecting neighbours with each other so that surplus food and other household items can be given away, not thrown away.
The app is really simple to use – you snap a photo of your item and add a brief description. Neighbours living nearby will receive an alert, and can then browse through the listings and request what they want. It’s up to you to choose who you want to give your item to – all users on OLIO are SMS-verified and have a profile in the app with information sharing a bit more about who they are, their star rating, and their sharing activity. The actual pickup is organised via in-app chat, and at the agreed time the neighbour pops round to the pickup location – which can be your doorstep or a public location. The app only ever shows the approximate location so it’s up to you to share the pickup address. Half of all food listings are requested in under 30 minutes, and half of all non-food listings are requested in under 3 hours – so there’s no shortage of demand once you’ve decided to give your stuff away!
OLIO can be used on iOS or Android devices, and we have a basic web app that can be accessed via our OLIO web site.
We are also in a very unique position to partner with businesses to redistribute food waste, which would otherwise be thrown away, to the local community through the OLIO app. pandamart is the first of our partners in Singapore. Each week, staff at each of pandamart’s outlets will set aside perishables which are nearing their shelf-life and items with minor packaging defects. The food will be collected by OLIO’s ‘Food Waste Hero’ volunteers to bring back to their local neighbourhood – anyone on OLIO can collect surplus items listed on OLIO. Our pilot programme at Whampoa was really successful, with close to 400kg of food redistributed, providing an equivalent of over 900 meals to 180 local families – and this is from just one pandamart store. The results translate to approximately over 1700kg of CO2 emissions avoided, and over 295 thousand litres of water saved.
Were you already living a sustainable life before you had the idea for OLIO?
To be really honest with you, I wasn’t at all! Whilst my childhood on the family farm was incredibly frugal and sustainable, as soon as I left home I wanted to get as far away from all that as possible.
As a result, I got swept up in the modern way of living which is all about consumption without any consideration whatsoever for the planet. It was only after founding OLIO that I had my eyes opened to the problem of waste, and the enormity of the climate and biodiversity crises too. Since then I’ve been on a journey with my family to try and lead a more sustainable, and less wasteful life. I’ve spent countless hours researching and experimenting with environmentally-friendly products. You can see the results of all that hard work in the ‘GOALS’ section of the OLIO app which gives our users over 100 simple swaps they can make to lead a more sustainable life.
What has been the craziest thing anyone has shared on the OLIO app?
We’ve had so many crazy things given away! An old organ from a church, and a set of dentures – which were picked up by a teacher needing them for a school play – are two of the stranger things I’ve seen. Over the years I’ve learned it really is true that “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure”, so we always encourage people to have a declutter and give stuff away on OLIO. They’d be amazed at what gets requested!
Do you find yourself making odd dishes to use up all your food? If so what are some things you have made and how do the kids react?
I make up odd dishes with leftovers all the time! In fact, I found that our very best meals have been these sorts of “medley meals” as I call them. Perhaps it’s because after a few days in the fridge, the flavours have had a chance to really marinate, so everything tastes so much better.
3 top tips for families to inspire them to live more sustainably?
Coming together as a family to take greener steps can be really fulfilling! My top 3 tips would be:
1. Make it a game – select one thing you want to make more sustainable each week (anything from your toothbrush to your milk, to your energy and even to your bank account) and then try and make that simple swap
2. Don’t aim for perfection – the zero waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau said it best when she said, “we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”. It’s really important to celebrate every step you take, no matter how small.
3. Think of your money as a vote – every time you spend some money you need to think of it as a vote: you can either vote for the status quo (which is destroying the planet and our children’s future), or you can vote for change. Using your money to buy more sustainable products sends an incredibly powerful message to businesses that this is what we want, and that’s what gives them the impetus to innovate and make sustainability more accessible to us all.
Make Earth Day, Every Day!
Tessa Clarke, mum and co-founder of sharing app OLIO shares every day planet-saving tips
- Brush teeth with a bamboo toothbrush
- Make your own moisturiser out of coconut oil and use reusable face wipes
- Bring your own reusable mug for coffee takeaways
- At home, reuse coffee grounds as fertiliser for plants, or as a natural cleaning scrub
- Run, walk, cycle or use public transport instead of a car
- Take a packed lunch, use beeswax wraps so you don’t need to buy-on-the go
- Bring your own glass or plastic containers to dabao lunch
- Share extra portions with colleagues
- Initiate a lunchtime walk with colleagues or friends, collecting litter as you go
- List or collect an item via the OLIO app – post on social media to encourage others to do the same
- Bring your own reusable shopping bags when shopping
- Check the OLIO app for surplus food given away by Food Waste Heroes via pandamart before buying at the supermarket
- Batch cook your evening meal, freezing portions to use later
- Do a wardrobe spring clean, list your unwanted items on OLIO or donate
- Ensure all plugs are switched off at the wall
- Sleep with the fan on or use the ‘cool mode’ on the aircon to lower energy consumption
Thanks so much for your time, Tessa and keep up the amazing work. You are an inspiration as a mum and as an advocate for a better greener planet!