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The Next Economy
Is It Time for Old Solutions to New Problems?

It’s clear we need a fundamental shift in how we perceive and manage our finite resources. But as more and more businesses shift away from profit at all costs to profit with purpose, hopefully we will all soon 'share more, waste less.'

What’s weirder: Sharing food or wasting food?

A glance in the garbage from most households, supermarkets and restaurants answers this unequivocally: We’re definitely not sharing our extras anymore. To give some indication of the scale of the problem, one-third of all the food we produce globally each year goes to waste, which is worth over $1 trillion; in the US, approximately 40 percent of the entire food supply — nearly 60 million tons worth $218 billion — is wasted annually.

The environmental impact of this is absolutely enormous: If it were to be a country, food waste would be the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China. And globally, food waste generates 4-5 times the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the aviation industry.

Shockingly, coexisting alongside this widespread waste is equally widespread hunger: According to the World Health Organization, over 800 million people go to bed hungry; and in 2023, 44 million US households struggled to get enough food to feed everyone.

The existence of such a painful paradox indicates something very broken in our food systems. And it raises all sorts of challenging moral, economic, environmental, social and political questions as we start to think about how to solve it. One thing I’m sure we can all agree on, though, is that we can and must do better.

Our research shows that no one likes to throw away food, but most people feel they don’t have any alternative. That’s because so many of us are no longer connected to our local communities, and so don’t have anyone to give our surplus food to. Local restaurants and retailers also find it a challenge, as it can be hard to find a quick and safe way to redistribute unsold or unserved food at the end of each day.

At Olio, we use an “old” solution to our terribly modern waste problem. It connects people with their neighbors so they can give away, rather than throw away, their spare food. With over 100,000 volunteers, the service also collects and redistributes surplus food from local businesses such as supermarkets, schools, hospitals, corporate canteens and more.

But to really unlock the potential here, it’s clear we need a fundamental shift in how we perceive and manage our finite resources. Specifically, the traditional, linear model upon which our current economic system is based — whereby goods are produced, used for a fraction of their lives, and then discarded — which is completely unsustainable. Instead, we need to move towards a circular-economy model — where waste has been designed out of the system at every single touchpoint, much like things used to be.

And the urgency for this circular approach has never been more pressing: Recent research shows humanity has now broken 6 out of 9 planetary boundaries; and Earth Overshoot Day, the day in the year by which humanity has used all the resources the earth can replenish, fell on August 2 last year. It seems we simply don’t have time to waste in solving the problem of waste.

A growing number of businesses are implementing a purpose-driven approach by giving equal weight to people, planet and profit in their decision making, because they recognize that the relentless quest to maximize shareholder returns — in a world where carbon emissions, pollution, biodiversity loss and resource depletion are seemingly “free” — has left humanity on a precarious edge. And they’ve discovered that adopting a profit-with-purpose approach can be an enormous source of competitive advantage both in terms of attracting and retaining talent, as well as sourcing and closing commercial contracts.

The Better Business Act’s Purpose Dividend report, for example, found the clear business case for profit with purpose: If all businesses were to operate this way, it would result in an annual £149bn boost to the UK GDP; a sevenfold increase in R&D expenditure; an £86bn increase in capital investment; and a £5.3bn pay raise to the lowest paid, which is worth £44 a week for minimum-wage employees. And research by B Lab shows widespread consumer support for this — with 72 percent of the British public believing businesses “should have a legal responsibility to the planet and people, alongside maximizing profits.” As every business leader knows, where consumers lead, business soon follows.

In the 1960s, Stanford computer scientist and futurist Roy Amara told his colleagues: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, and underestimate the effect in the long run.” I would argue the same applies to paradigm shifts: They can be hard to spot when you’re in them; but dial back out, and their impact is clear. There are myriad signs that we’re swimming in the undercurrents of a major paradigm shift — away from profit at all costs to profit with purpose — which hopefully means, in the words of our tagline, we will all soon “share more, waste less.”