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Phénix: Saving Excess Food from the Ashes

Founded in 2014, French start-up Phénix is working to connect large supermarkets and smaller associations to give unsold products, especially food, a second chance

Under the glass roof of a modern converted warehouse, around a dozen young professionals share an office space with a foosball table. This is Phénix: an innovative start-up company created in March 2014 by two friends, Jean Moreau and Baptiste Corval.

At the core of their company lies the understanding that food waste is an untapped market like any other resource. Phénix – the French word for the bird that rises triumphantly from the ashes – wants to reduce food waste by serving as a link between large supermarkets and various charitable associations; putting the circular economy into action.

Phénix is also the result of co-founder Jean Moreau’s personal search for meaning in life. The 33-year-old former investment banker retrained after realising that he did not want to “compile Excel spread sheets for the rest of his life to end his career at 50 with lots of money in an account.”

In supermarkets, products deemed unfit for consumption – whether because they have exceeded their sell-by dates or are somehow damaged – are generally piled in stock rooms before being thrown out covered in bleach or reduced to ashes.

“Destroying these products incurs a cost for the companies,” Moreau explains as he scrolls through slide after slide of graphics showing the many ways in which supermarkets run up costs from the storage and transport of surplus products, in addition to an incineration tax.

Phénix is seeking to reach agreements with large companies to help them stop wasting money – or even earn some back – by donating unwanted items.

Thanks to French legislation on donations to charitable associations, Phénix can ensure companies take a tax deduction equal to 66 percent of their value. The start-up then gets a slice of the savings through a 30 percent commission.

Any and every product is suitable for donation as long as it still has a carrying value, which includes food items, dented tins of paint, outdated board games or last season’s clothes.

Phénix’s platform provides large supermarkets with an easy means of scanning in the products they want to donate and providing the expiry date. A link is then made between the distributor and the association, like a match on a dating website.

To increase the participation of smaller, local shops, Phénix does the legwork, providing collectors to pick up goods and deliver them to associations on eco-scooters. Phénix’s staff also help train shop employees to sort products and raise their awareness on the issues surrounding food waste.

Phénix’s principal target is the food industry –– the start-up has already partnered with 220 companies, including Carrefour, Franprix, Leclerc and Système U. Products not meant for human consumption (around a quarter of all donations), go to circuses, zoos and aquariums.

In 2015, the start-up reported a one million euro turnover. It is now working in French cities beyond Paris, such as Montpellier, Rennes and Lyon, and plans to add around 40 people to its team. At the same time, it is opening to the international market, starting with Spain and Portugal, whose taxation rules on donations are similar to those in France.

Of course, Phénix’s co-founders fear that any changes in French tax laws would put a spanner in the works of their corporate donation system. Moreau has also considered the implications of a potential saturation of the market, “If all the supermarkets gave away their unsold food, there would be a greater supply than we need.”

By Julie Chauveau – Les Echos,  France

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