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These women are caring for the world by building sustainable businesses

The sustainability movement is perhaps the most essential of all the movements that we have today, for it depends on the future of everything connected to our planet. It is necessary to tackle environmental pollution, rampant deforestation, unplanned infrastructural development, plastic and food wastage, among the many issues the earth is facing.

But what is being done to ensure that the people of our planet have a future? Look around you and you will find many activists, student leaders, celebrities and politicians who have taken it upon themselves to educate, inform and fight for the sake of the health of the blue planet. It is because of their collective efforts that climate change has become a topic of immense significance across the world.

Joining them are business leaders, some of whom have built companies that work to promote sustainability. What is even more inspiring is that some of these companies have been founded by women who have been at the forefront of humanity’s struggle to keep the earth sustainable.

Women-led start-ups who aim to reduce food and plastic waste

sustainable businesses
Image credit: Pawel Czerwinski/@pawel_czerwinski/Unsplash

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Lifestyle Asia Singapore interviewed women founders of two different companies who are helping reduce food and plastic waste— two of the major environmental issues— through sustainability.

Tessa Clarke and Saasha Celestial-One are friends who launched OLIO to tackle the first major issue. OLIO is a mobile neighbourhood app that helps neighbours and businesses share food that would otherwise go to waste.

On the other hand, Laura Benns is the director of programs at SecondMuse for The Incubation Network, which was founded in 2019 as a partnership between The Circulate Initiative, a non-profit organisation, and the impact innovation company named SecondMuse. It aims to combat plastic pollution and build a circular economy in South and Southeast Asia.

Read on to know what they said about food and plastic waste, women entrepreneurs leading sustainable businesses and more

How did you start the business, and what made you go eco-friendly?

Tessa Clarke: 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. As a result, the idea for OLIO came when I was moving countries and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t had, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. And 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.

Through the whole process, it seemed crazy to me 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. But the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of OLIO, a free sharing app, came about. I realised there was a real need to create an online platform for neighbours, local shops and cafes to share surplus food, with the potential to expand into household items and more.

Once I’d had the idea, I started to research more about 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 most significant problems facing humankind today — one-third of all food produced globally gets thrown away, while 800 million people go to bed hungry. If it were to be a country, then food waste would be the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China. Once we’d discovered all this, we knew we had to launch OLIO.

Laura Benns: Moving to Asia six years ago was really the catalyst for my professional sustainability journey.

I grew up in New Zealand, which has the reputation for being clean and green. When I came to Southeast Asia and spent time in the region for both leisure and work, the difference really shook me. There were many things I took for granted, such as going for a walk on the beach and barely seeing one piece of rubbish along the whole stretch, finding rubbish bins everywhere on the street, and very little pollution.

I thought to myself, “What can I do? I need to do more.” But when I dived into the region’s plastic waste value chains, I quickly realised many considerations make solving this challenge so nuanced.

That brings me to what I’m doing today at The Incubation Network. We’re an impact-driven initiative that sources, supports and scales holistic innovative solutions to combat plastic pollution through strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems with a diverse network of key partners.

How are women entrepreneurs influencing and changing the world of sustainable business?

Tessa Clarke: I spent the majority of my career in the corporate world, which is male-dominated. Now that I’m building a sustainable business, I’m amazed by just how many female founders there are! This is why I get very frustrated that only 1.1 percent of all venture capital investment in Europe goes to female-founded businesses; because by short-changing women, we’re short-changing humanity.

Having raised over USD 50 million in financing for my female co-founded business and spoken to hundreds of other early stage founders — plus having pored over the data — I firmly believe that rather than trying to “fix” female founders, the VC industry needs to do the much harder work of fixing itself.

If I look back over hundreds of founder decks and conversations I’ve had in the last seven years, what I have noticed is that the female founders seem to be disproportionately solving significant social and environmental problems which, to date, have sadly failed to excite — and therefore elicit investment from — the predominantly male VC industry. It is only by changing the composition of the gatekeepers of capital that we stand any chance of changing the distribution of capital.

Laura Benns: At The Incubation Network, we have the privilege of supporting an incredible number of women innovating for the better on a daily basis.

One fantastic example in India is Neha Jain, who founded Zerocircle, an alternative materials innovator that uses seaweed to produce plastic alternatives. Neha and her team are working with local seaweed farmers to create alternative plastics used to make food packaging, plant-based food, medical equipment (like gloves, masks, sutures), textiles, shoe soles, courier packaging and more. Not only does this help address the plastic waste problem, but it also creates new jobs for these farmers from low-income families who previously depended on fishing as their main livelihood.

What inspires me about Neha is that even though she comes from a traditionally patriarchal society, she’s one of the many thousands of women in India who are not only taking their careers into their own hands but are also actively shaping the world around them for good.

What role do you think governments around the world should play in supporting women-led projects and businesses, especially those focusing on sustainability?

Tessa Clarke: Governments have an enormous role to play because if they gave more tax breaks and investment incentives to building sustainable businesses, then it would have a double positive effect — it would ensure that some of society’s biggest problems are solved, and it would ensure that the full potential of women is unlocked.

Laura Benns: When talking about governments and plastic, people tend to jump to EPR (extended producer responsibility) policies without much thought to other opportunities to create meaningful change. To explain it simply, EPR frameworks tend to result in regulations that make plastic producers responsible for the end-life of the product. For example, soft drink manufacturers who make plastic bottles are given responsibility — financial and/or physical — for the treatment or disposal of those bottles once the consumer has used them. It’s a start, but it’s only one part of the challenge in addressing the plastic waste problem.

Meaningful impact starts with the right context, especially when it comes to policy and regulation. There is a need to first understand the important role and experiences of on-the-ground stakeholders, for example, women waste pickers, to get a holistic view of the challenges that they face in the system. Without knowing the exact context of what’s happening on the ground, regulatory policies risk furthering inequality amongst the informal waste workers.

Policymakers also have a major opportunity to develop frameworks that encourage and support new, creative solutions to get to scale through securing local municipal government waste management contracts.

How can society support these efforts?

Tessa Clarke: The most important thing society can do is to hold up and celebrate female role models to encourage the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

Laura Benns: While reducing plastic pollution requires meaningful action from all actors across the value chain to bring in significant change, such as the right infrastructure to incite large-scale impact, consumers are an integral part of this equation and have a role to play as well.

Society’s support for these efforts can start at home. Each of us has a big opportunity to change people’s perception surrounding plastic use from a behaviour level, and that can lead to the potential to influence decision-makers. In fact, disregarding Asia’s consumer markets would mean missing half the global consumption story. According to McKinsey research, “Consumers across the region express increased willingness to pay for more sustainable alternative products. In some cases in this regard, they are matching or even ahead of their counterparts in the United States and Europe.”

Personally, I have higher expectations of myself because I do know more about the industry than the average consumer. It’s all about making well-informed choices. When I go to the supermarket and need to buy plastic, I make sure it can be recycled. PET plastic, like water bottles, is very highly likely to be recycled as opposed to buying flexible plastics. There’s also a huge growing number of refill shops here in Singapore, like Scoops Wholefoods and The Source Bulk Foods, which are encouraging for shifting consumer habits.

Here’s what Tessa, OLIO’s co-founder, had to say about managing food waste, plans for the future and more

Saasha Celestial-One and Tessa Clarke (R) of OLIO. (Image credit: OLIO/REDEFY)

What, according to you, is the top priority when it comes to managing food waste?

Reducing food waste has recently been identified by Project Drawdown as the #1 solution to the climate crisis. There’s never been a more important time to manage food waste at home. To do this, I always remember my 5 S’s:

  1. Shop with a plan
  2. Store your food correctly to extend its shelf life
  3. Serve sensible portion sizes
  4. Save your leftovers in the refrigerator
  5. Share your spare with a neighbour via the OLIO app

What are the challenges you face managing a sustainable business?

The challenges facing a sustainable business are the same as any other business, with a couple of notable exceptions. First, it’s critical to be able to measure your impact accurately. Thus, you must invest a lot of time and resources in doing that. Second, raising capital can be challenging. There hasn’t been nearly enough capital allocated to sustainable businesses.

However, there are also advantages, one of which is the fact that sustainable businesses attract and retain the best talent, as more people are heading into the work with purpose. It’s my strong belief that ‘profit with purpose’, where businesses prioritise their mission to achieve social, community and environmental benefit beyond traditional profit, will become the next business paradigm. Businesses that fail to impact the world positively will eventually lose their license to live.

What are your plans for OLIO? Are there any special eco-friendly projects in the pipeline?

I’m very excited about a section we’ve recently launched in the app called Borrow. This enables OLIOers to lend and borrow everyday household items from one another. Think cat carriers, camping stoves, ladders, drills, books,  board games, fancy dress costumes, popcorn makers and more.

This year, I’m also looking forward to building on our early international expansion efforts and seeing OLIO really growing across the world. Sadly, waste at home and local businesses is a global phenomenon that still needs to be urgently addressed.

Finally, as more businesses are recognising that they have to get to Net Zero, it’s a great time for our Food Waste Heroes Programme, which connects over 40,000 trained volunteers with their local stores. This way, surplus food at the end of the day can be collected and redistributed to the local community via the OLIO app rather than being thrown away.

What advice would you have for those who want to start a sustainable business?

My advice to entrepreneurs wanting to start a sustainable business is the same advice I’d give to any entrepreneur.

First, when you’re starting a business, it’s critical to have a learning mindset — your key objective at this stage is to experiment as quickly as possible, not to have all the answers.

Second, you can de-risk massively by starting small and building from there. If you haven’t already, do read The Lean Startup, a great business-building philosophy. Lots of people want to jump straight to building an app, but I strongly encourage you to build your community or product on an existing platform, such as Facebook or Instagram, before investing in building something more.

Third, given that more capital provides more runway and more runway generally equates to a greater probability of success, make sure to carefully scrutinise every expenditure you make — it’s surprising how much you can achieve with how little when you get creative.

Finally, although entrepreneurship can be the most fulfilling thing in the world, it is an incredibly long, tough journey. So make sure to carve out some time for yourself to preserve your health and sanity. It’s time well spent.

Benns shared her views on tackling plastic waste, how The Incubation Network is helping women-led start-ups and more.

sustainable businesses
Laura Benns of The Incubation Network. (Image credit: SecondMuse/REDEFY)

What, according to you, is the top priority when it comes to managing plastic waste?

Plastic pollution, waste management and recycling are very complex issues, and that’s why we’ve ended up in the situation we are in today. Because of the complexity, there’s no one magic solution or singular priority that’s going to solve the problem.

This is why, at The Incubation Network, we tend to have a perspective that’s both top-down and bottom-up — which means we take a real ecosystem approach by pulling together all the key entrepreneurs and making sure there is an understanding of the barriers and challenges. In Southeast Asia, each country has very different issues. Keeping the myriad of considerations surrounding the ecosystem in view helps address some of the complexity that we see.

Before digging deep into the space, I was like the standard, eco-conscious consumer.  We had a recycling bin at home, and I made sure to rinse my cans and bottles. What I didn’t give a second thought to, though, was separating them and understanding what those numbers in the triangle at the bottom of every shampoo bottle meant. I didn’t really think about the implications of that and the fact that some of them simply weren’t recyclable in the country I was in. Even if they were, there is also the fact that the waste systems required to manage and reduce pollution impact — as seen in other parts of the world — might not be in place. These were sobering realisations to contend with.

It’s also important to consider the intersection of cultural and social challenges here, too. For instance, waste management systems in many cities in Southeast Asia rely heavily on waste pickers or waste collectors. They are responsible for 97 percent of PET bottles collected for recycling, which then make their way into the recycling value chain. Although they play such a key role, these workers aren’t recognised as part of a formal portion of the waste management system, which means they often don’t receive social and economic protections. This is just another example of the complexity inherent within plastic waste management.

Plastic is one of the biggest threats to life both on land and in the oceans. Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment, called for a ‘legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution’ at the recently held fifth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly. Do you believe that legally binding treaties are an effective way to tackle the plastic menace, especially for poorer economies?

They can be. I think legally binding treaties, such as the Paris Climate Change agreement in 2015, are a great rallying cry for highlighting and drawing attention to the importance of such issues. However, we need to ensure they are well-designed for different economies and that they acknowledge the challenges different countries face. They have to be globally relevant and locally contextualised. Otherwise, these legally binding treaties may backfire and can lead to the worsening of existing issues or reinforce the status quo.

Ocean plastics are a major problem for all marine life, and the economies are dependent on them. Despite all the progress that has been made, it remains a problem. What more do you think needs to be done to clean our oceans? 

For us at The Incubation Network, we believe in connecting the dots across all ecosystem actors in plastics recycling, such as startups, entrepreneurs, accelerators, incubators, corporates, governments and community operators, to help solutions scale and ideally integrate into corporate value chains.

This means putting resources behind entrepreneurs who are coming up with solutions to tackle the issue and eradicate ocean plastic pollution, and empowering them with the right connections, technical assistance and R&D support so that their solutions can enter the market and be adopted. There is also the need for greater clarity of market dynamics and systemic challenges across the region, so we can eventually create demand for these market-driven solutions. This will drive real, sustainable systems change.

Innovation is the key to all development. What is The Incubation Network doing to assist start-ups, especially the ones by women, in South and Southeast Asia who are trying to make a mark in the sustainable economy?

We source, support and scale solutions, with a particular focus on women-led startups. This means we not only get to work directly with entrepreneurs and their teams, but we also work at an ecosystem level to get more solutions to scale. Given our network, our team also acts as a broker and connector of ecosystem decision-makers to begin addressing system-level issues.

We also run tailored programmes, such as our Equality in Plastics Circularity programme, specifically targeted at improving gender equality in waste systems, and we develop resources that help entrepreneurs refine their approach to gender equality within their businesses.

We talk about the ‘circular economy’. Can you explain what this means exactly and how it benefits societies, particularly the developing economies?

As most of us know, the circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which ensures that existing materials and products can be shared, leased, reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled for as long as possible. This helps eliminate waste and pollution, circulate materials and products and regenerate nature.

At The Incubation Network, we view the realisation of a circular economy as having both an economic and societal benefit to the South and Southeast Asia region. We need to ensure that equality is built into the system, and key stakeholders, like informal waste workers, are integrated and valued. No one should be left behind in a sustainable circular economy.

(Main image: OLIO/REDEFY; SecondMuse/REDEFY; Featured image: Markus Spiske/@markusspiske/Unsplash)

These women are caring for the world by building sustainable businesses

Manas Sen Gupta

Manas Sen Gupta writes at the intersection of tech, entertainment and history. His works have appeared in publications such as The Statesman, Myanmar Matters, Hindustan Times and News18/ETV. In his spare time, Manas loves studying interactive charts and topographic maps. When not doing either, he prefers reading detective fiction. Spring is his favourite season and he can happily eat a bowl of noodles any time of the day.


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