Re-available: We believe in the value of short-dated food

By DBS, 23 Mar 2021

During every major clean-up at home, there is usually food that has passed the "best before” date and ends up in the trash. However, to Hong Kong social enterprise supermarket GreenPrice, such "clean-up" that results in wasting food can be avoided. In fact, food on their shelves is exactly the food that we think should be discarded because it has passed the "best before” date.

Reducing waste and promoting sustainable lifestyle is the mission of GreenPrice — Hong Kong’s first social enterprise supermarket that is environmentally friendly and affordable. It specialises in selling food that is close to or past the "best before” date, helps eliminate food waste and allows public to buy it at a discounted price. Many people might want to know how this supermarket, which aims to "save food", can ensure food safety and make consumer feel at ease?

How to collect and screen?

According to the Centre for Food Safety, "best before" date relates to food quality. If the food is stored properly, it can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties up to and including the specified date. On the contrary, "use by" date relates to food safety. From microbiological point of view, the food is highly perishable and is therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health. Although the food carrying a "best before” date is still acceptable for consumption after the specified date, many brands would choose to destroy them. From a business perspective, it is to safeguard the brand’s reputation, but it also creates a lot of waste.

Over 3,600 tonnes of food waste is created daily in Hong Kong, of which more than 70% comes from households. Most of the food discarded is based on a misunderstanding of the “best before” dates. Three determined young people then established GreenPrice supermarket, hoping to educate people the concept of best before dates. The team was formed when they were still in university, and with HK$100,000 initial capital that they won in an environmental protection competition.

On a shoestring budget and to minimise operational risks including store location selection, warehousing, supplies of goods and transportation, they first tested the water at weekend markets. "At the beginning, many people were uncomfortable with the idea of buying short-dated food. A parent even told her child not to do that and it was not right to consume ‘expired’ food," recalled Terence Hon, who is in charge of the retail business of GreenPrice. He then seized the opportunity and made a cup of tea with an “expired” tea bag and invited the parent to try the quality.

The response of that parent reflected the buying concerns of consumer. When people find goods that are about to expire in supermarket, most people would put them down right away as they have doubts about the quality of short-dated goods. With that as an insight, Terence has set “quality” as a key screening requirement for sourcing short-dated goods.

In terms of supply, GreenPrice, with five stores opened, deals with wholesalers directly as most supermarkets would return products that expire soon and food that has passed the best before date. "We try the food before buying and carry out sample inspections afterwards. When the food arrives at our stores, our shopkeepers will arrange QC (Quality Control) to ensure the quality of the product," explains Terence.

Different roles in the team

When a business needs to take both social responsibility and profitability into account, multiple perspectives are needed to take into consideration. “In our discussion, some are in charge of the financial side of the business, while some focus on how to save more food,” says Allison Chan, who is in charge of purchasing. "The emergence of social enterprises is to tackle social problems, but they cannot rely solely on subsidies. We must have a business model in order to sustain." As a business student, she understands the importance of creating both social value and profits as well as operating stably as a social enterprise.

Inspired by their visits to grocery stores specialising in selling expired food during a trip to Germany and the UK, GreenPrice brought the concept back to Hong Kong. However, to make it practical in Hong Kong, they have developed their own business model. By using the sales records, they measure the popularity of the items in each store and determine the appropriate quantity of the supplies.

Being the winner of "DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant 2020", GreenPrice says, "We would like to thank DBS Foundation for supporting GreenPrice to establish a digital supply chain system that allows us to be more accurate when doing all kinds of calculations in our operation. Moreover, the grant helps us to expand our fleet of stores. Physical stores not only help attract more customers, through providing tastings, we can offer customers first-hand experience on the quality of short-dated food. This enables us to continue passing on the spirit of ‘Towards Zero Food Waste’."

The meaning of "purchase"

When it comes to pricing, Allison says, "For food, the price is usually set at half price, but it also depends on the situation. If the goods are going to be off the shelves very soon, the price would be set lower. The most important thing is to save the food." Recently, GreenPrice has started selling skincare products. Allison adds, “Due to the pandemic, in addition to food, suppliers have also accumulated a certain amount of skincare products.” Going forward, GreenPrice’s goal remains to offer more varieties of supplies to provide customers with more choices and save more goods.

It is very meaningful to turn goods that were meant to be sent to landfills into a business. GreenPrice not only believes in the value of short-dated goods, but also believes the education behind the "purchasing" process. "Although the goods can be cleared through donation, the recipients may not really cherish them. Many people still don’t understand the concept of short-dated goods. But we hope that in the future, through more and different types of education and dialogues, more consumers will understand our concept.”

Click here to learn more about DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant Programme