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Scaling Up the Upcycled Food Movement

Sarah Hutcherson headshotWords by Sarah Hutcherson
Consumer Trends
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We are all aware of our national and global food waste epidemic. Within the United States alone, according to ReFED, Americans waste 63 million tons of food, which costs consumers, farmers and manufacturers $218 billion, or 1.5 percent of the total GDP. Meanwhile, as many as 1 in 7 Americans is vulnerable to food insecurity. Amidst this bleak reality, an entrepreneurial movement is afoot to reduce food waste and its greenhouse gas emissions from the production and disposal of food. 

Diverting food waste through selling upcycled food products

These entrepreneurs are creating and selling food products, described as upcycled food, which are made from edible byproducts, unwanted food scraps or tarnished vegetables. Not only are these products loaded with taste and nutrition, but they can also remove a chunk out of the total amount of food headed to the landfill. These products also create new revenue streams for farmers, suppliers and restaurants, while creating unique stories that can help differentiate their products in order to appeal to consumers.

A 2017 Drexel Lab food study shows that consumers favor the modifier “upcycled” to the point at which their willingness to pay increases when they see 'upcycled' on a product’s packaging. Why? Consumers view products labeled as upcycled as more likely to provide more value related to health benefits than both organic and conventional products. 

Smart logistics is essential when scaling an upcycled food company

To divert what could be as much as 1.3 billion tons of food waste globally per year, the upcycled entrepreneurial movement needs to scale up and do so quickly.

Companies such as Toast Ale—a United Kingdom-born brewer that creates beer out of day-old bread—and The Real Dill—a Colorado company that says its most popular product is made from its reused cucumber solution—acknowledge the challenges involved in scaling up any upcycled food product. The challenges include smart reverse logistics as well as having willing suppliers and partners with an understanding of the long-term financial and environmental benefits.

Right now, Toast Ale is working to strengthen the reliability and consistency of its operations in the U.S. There are many players in Toast’s U.S. supply chain, which at times can lead to quality control issues, such as missed deliveries due to the flux of retailers’ delivery schedules. There is also the chance that unwanted loaves of bread don't meet Toast Ale's sourcing criteria, which detail that the bread Toast Ale receives should be sliced and surplus.

Collaboration is key to scaling up the upcycled food movement

However, the complexity of scaling Toast’s supply chain offers an opportunity to persuade more bread producers to rethink their linear supply chains. Errors in logistics have led to conversations with bakeries that weren’t sure how to waste less and soon become the most eager of Toast’s suppliers.

“Scaling the upcycled [food] movement is collaborative,” Janet Viader, head of sales and operations for Toast Ale, told TriplePundit. “There are constant discussions about whether pick-up [of the toast heels] is our labor or their labor. It is still a work in process to find the systems.”   

Collaboration is also a key ingredient in the success of The Real Dill’s Bloody Mary Mix. After the founders’ experiment of upcycling the cucumber solution from their pickling process proved successful, The Real Dill developed relationships with various businesses in order to grow a product that furthers its zero-waste mission. 

“If a company’s interested in eliminating food waste, look outside your door to find that one person or organization that is already doing this,” suggested Lindsey Hornstein, The Real Dill’s marketing manager.

What other steps are needed to scale the upcycled food movement? 

The Real Dill and Toast Ale are not the only companies tackling food waste through upcycling food for profit. Barnana, a company that creates banana chips out of fruit deemed unfit for the grocery shelves; Renewal Mill, which makes a high-protein flour out of tofu byproducts; and Coffee Cherry Company, another flour company that makes its products out of discarded coffee fruit, are only a few examples of companies that grasp business opportunities from the abundance of wasted food. And baby carrots? They are often chopped up from carrots that consumers would not buy—and could otherwise end up in landfills.

More tactics such as creating an upcycled food coalition and expanding the resources available to willing entrepreneurs to address supply chain challenges can also help grow the upcycled food movement. What other steps can companies take to bring the upcycled food movement to scale?

Image credit: Toast Ale/Facebook

Sarah Hutcherson headshotSarah Hutcherson

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson

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