How Digital Twins Can Help Retailers Give More to Food Banks

By converting potential food waste into a valuable source of food for thousands of hunger-stricken people, retailers can activate multiple channels for redistribution that have a social impact. A digital transformation of food retail through IoT applications and "digital twins" will solve several logistical challenges related to sorting and redistributing products nearing their "best-before" dates.

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

Food that would end up in a landfill can be redistributed to various channels for people in need. Smart connected products and #DigitalTwins will solve several logistical challenges related to sorting of products nearing their… Click To Tweet

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

So, what are the channels available to retailers and distributors to redistribute unused food items?

When thinking of channels to redistribute unused 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.

Several governments are taking steps to ensure distributors like supermarkets play an inclusive part in a circular economy in order to create value out of waste. The French parliament in 2016 unanimously passed a bill to make it mandatory for any supermarket measuring over 400 square meters 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 also coming up, opening even more ways for reuse of discarded food. Neighborly is one such example that is working towards connecting charities to potential food donors like retailers, supermarkets and other distributors.

Approved Food, an online retailer, targets manufacturers for food products that are past their best-before dates, selling them at discounted fares. Not only are they reusing products that other retailers or supermarkets would have shrugged off, but they’re also providing an economically viable option for manufacturers to dispose of such products.

All this is positive, but retailers could be doing much more to ensure their unused food reaches food banks with demand for surplus food far outstripping supply at the moment.

There are plenty of reasons why retailers can end up with unused food. It could be because of overproduction, unsold items after sales or competitions, items that are past their best-before dates, items whose appearances do not match specified standards, stock management mistakes, etc.

The major hurdle that distributors and retailers face isn’t a food problem but logistics. It’s a tedious process to manually check and list items that can be redistributed. By the time a store employee realizes a batch of products is eligible for redistribution, the food could be past its expiry date. Costs incurred from logistical challenges and manpower to sort food by best-before dates could be a major deterrent for retailers and supermarkets from getting more involved with food banks.

What Role Can Digital Twins Play in This?

The Internet of Things (IoT) could be the answer to this dilemma. If each item were to be digitally tagged, allowing them to have a digital representation or “twin” on the internet—and if that were used to store best-before and expiry dates—retailers and consumers could have access to applications and store technology that identifies products that need to be transferred to a food bank or put on clearance before it’s too late.

Once the data of the product’s best-before or expiry dates are electronically stored on a digital twin, it becomes simpler for retailers or consumers to interact with the products using their smartphones, RFID scanners, 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 towards food products that are becoming eligible for redistribution before the waste happens.

Not only will this mean distributors will always be on their toes and ready with products to be pushed into redistribution channels, it will also solve issues regarding storage space and costs caused by unused items since food banks and other channels ease the pressure on a retailer’s storage facilities by taking off 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 waste, and promote reuse. By converting parts of food waste into a valuable source of food for thousands of hunger-stricken people, 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 will solve several logistical challenges related to sorting of products nearing their best-before dates. Leading by example, retailers have the power to influence society and to make redistribution and reuse of discarded food a common practice.