Food waste is a growing problem. By some estimates, about one-third of the food the world produces is lost or thrown away. But what if we could tackle food waste while also delivering skills and professional development? An enterprising British firm is doing this by selling supermarket surpluses at a discount and using its stores as mini-community centres, where customers can add training and advice to their shopping lists.
For its innovative approach, Company Shop has just won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, announced today, on the British monarch’s birthday. And I spoke to Mark Game, the company’s managing director for my feature in the Financial Times covering the winners in the Sustainability category.
“It’s all about offering deeply discounted food to people who are on the cusp of chronic poverty but who have an appetite to improve their position in life,” Game told me.
Founded by John Marren more than 40 years ago, Company Shop started by selling retailers’ supply-chain surpluses through discount stores that are open to members, mainly food industry workers.
While this continues to help low-income families buy cheaper food, the company has found a way to use food re-distribution to have even greater social impact through a subsidiary called Community Shop.
The Community Shop stores, launched in 2013, offer much more than cheap food. Located in economically deprived areas, they not only enable members to buy the discounted surpluses. Members can also sign up for skills training and professional development and receive assistance if they need help, for example, reducing high levels of personal debt.
The company works with local services, from adult education providers to credit unions. It even runs cooking classes that not only offer advice on the basics but also help members learn how use of some of the more unusual foods that end up in the shop such as pigeon breast or celeriac.
“We collaborate with all the retailers and the supply chain to make sure that whatever’s left is minimised and once it’s minimised, we then use it to create a secondary benefit,” explained Game.
With two Community Shops – one in London, and the other in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire – the company has identified a further 20 sites for development, choosing locations by using government measures of deprivation levels.
The business model is interesting, too. Rather than operate as a non-profit, Community Shop is a registered community interest company. Established by the UK government, a CIC is an enterprise whose activities must be carried on for the benefit of the community.
For Community Shop, the for-profit structure offers greater financial sustainability. “The revenue that’s generated through the tills in the store is what we use to service the wages of the mentors, the retail team and the kitchen staff,” explained Game.
He believes that environmental sustainability and social change can go hand in hand. “There is so much that we ought to be doing with food waste,” he told me. “And yet it’s only when we developed a model that incorporated social impact that it became a compelling model.”
I certainly find the Community Shop model compelling. In one circular system, not only is the company tackling a global environmental problem. It is also changing people’s lives. As Game puts it: “We give that food a second chance.”