How Digital Twins Can Help Retailers Give More to Food Banks

The Internet of Things could help to identify products that need to be transferred to a food bank or be put on clearance before they expire.
Published: January 13, 2019

A large portion of the food we waste is in perfectly good condition for human consumption, especially considering that there are a large number of food-insecure people throughout the world. Food wastage occurs at all levels of the supply chain, from farm to distributors to consumers. Food that would otherwise end up in a landfill, contributing to greenhouse gases, can be turned into a resource, however, by redistributing it to various channels in order to engage people in need.

Since a considerable amount of this wastage occurs at the retail level, due either to overstocking or to imposed quality standards, retailers are in a powerful position to lead the change and contribute massively to a reduction in global food wastage, as well as hunger. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a U.K.-based organization working toward a circular economy, 1.9 million tonnes (2.09 million tons) of food are wasted annually in the United Kingdom through the grocery supply chain, 56 percent of which is avoidable. In fact, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 12.3 program aims to halve the per-capita food wastage occurring at the retail and consumer levels, as well at all points throughout the production and supply chain, by 2030.

So what channels are available to retailers and distributors to redistribute unused food items? When considering channels to redistribute such food items, food banks come to mind first. There are plenty of organizations that rely on donations from department stores and citizens to provide free meals to the food-insecure. According to one such organization, FareShare, there is enough surplus food in the United Kingdom to provide 800 million meals a year.

Several governments are taking steps to ensure that distributors, like supermarkets, play an inclusive role in a circular economy in order to create value out of waste. In 2016, the French parliament unanimously passed a bill to make it mandatory for any supermarket measuring more than 400 square metres (4,305 square feet) to sign an agreement with a local organization that redistributes unused food in an attempt to fight unnecessary food wastage.

A wide array of mobile apps are coming up, prising open even more ways for the reuse of discarded food. One such example, Neighbourly, is working toward connecting charities to potential food donors, such as retailers, supermarkets and other distributors. Approved Food, an online retailer, targets manufacturers for food products that are past their best-before dates, then sells them at discounted fares. Not only are they reusing products that other retailers or supermarkets would have shrugged off, but they also provide an economically viable option for manufacturers to dispose of such products.

Retailers could, however, be doing much more to ensure their unused food reaches food banks. The demand for surplus food far outstrips supply at the moment.

There are plenty of reasons why retailers can end up with unused food. It could be due to overproduction, unsold items after sales or competitions, items that are past their best-before dates, goods whose appearance do not match specified standards, stock management mistakes and so forth. Hence, the major hurdle that distributors and retailers face is not a food problem, but logistics. It’s a tedious process to manually check and list items that can be redistributed. By the time that a store employee realizes a batch of products is eligible for redistribution, it could be well past its expiry date. Thus, costs incurred from logistical challenges and manpower to sort food by best-before dates could be a major deterrent for retailers and supermarkets, preventing them from getting more involved with food banks.

What Role Can Digital Twins Play in This?
The Internet of Things (IoT) could provide an answer to this dilemma. If each item were digitally tagged, allowing it to have a digital twin on the internet—which could then be used to store best-before and expiry dates—retailers and consumers could have access to applications and technologies that identify products which need to be transferred to a food bank or be put on clearance before it’s too late.

Once best-before or expiry dates are electronically stored on a digital twin, it becomes simpler for retailers and consumers to interact with products via smartphones, RFID readers, NFC readers, smart-shelf technologies and other applications that can read, process and alert them ahead of time. Retailers will always have a clearer picture of the contents of their inventories, with more visibility toward food products that are becoming eligible for redistribution before waste happens.

Not only will this mean that distributors will always be on their toes and ready with products to be pushed into redistribution channels, but they will also solve issues regarding storage space and costs caused by unused items. This is because food banks and other channels ease the pressure on a retailer’s storage facilities by taking their unused food items.

In order to move toward a more sustainable future, we need to extract the maximum value from our resources, including food wastage, and promote reuse. By converting parts of food waste into a valuable source of food for thousands of hunger-stricken individuals, retailers can not only play their part in society, but explore multiple channels for redistribution—both business and charitable. A digital transformation of all their products through smart, connected products and digital twins can solve several logistical challenges related to the sorting of products nearing their best-before dates. Leading by example, retailers have the power to influence society and make the redistribution and reuse of discarded food a common practice.

Neil Sequeira is the director of product management and marketing at QLIKTAG Software, an innovator of software products. QLIKTAG’s IoT Smart Connected Products platform is an IoT platform for ordinary everyday consumer products bringing the power of the IoT to the consumer retail industry. Neil co-authored the book The Internet of Products and regularly publishes articles and posts on topics around the IoT in retail, connected products, Industry 4.0 and other related developments in the consumer retail technology domain.