Alumni Food Waste

Marc Zornes, Founder of Winnow Solutions

Marc Zornes graduated from WashU in 2004 with a degree in Entrepreneurship and Computer Science. In addition to working with the U.S. Green Building Council and McKinsey & Company, Marc is best known for his founding of Winnow Solutions. Winnow aims to help businesses like hotels, restaurants, and cruise lines reduce their food waste by integrating technology and data collection into their points of disposal.

Jacob Plotkin, an intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke on the phone with Marc to learn more about his professional career and gain further insight into how WashU has helped bring him to where he is today.

What motivated you to create Winnow Solutions?

After graduating, I worked for a very fast growing food distribution company where I eventually became Chief of Staff and CEO. I also volunteered in Guatemala and worked for the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Later, I went back to school to get my MBA, which allowed me to work for McKinsey, in their London office.

When working at McKinsey, I had the chance to work on “Resource Revolution“, a report that explored the biggest opportunities to save natural resources like food, land, water, energy, and minerals. Finding out that food waste was one of the three biggest global opportunities to save resources truly inspired me to build my own business to address this issue. 

I fundamentally believe that food is too valuable to waste. If I could prevent food waste, then I could save a business money. If I could save the business money and then have them pay me a lower amount than what they saved, then I would have a business model.

What are the solutions offered by Winnow?

Winnow puts waste management technology into large hospitality businesses, which includes universities, stadiums, large hotels, large chain restaurants, and now cruise lines. From our experience, commercial kitchens typically throw away 10 to 20% of what they’re buying. If you measure food waste, and do analytics on what food is wasted, you can cut that food waste in half, meaning we can save our clients 3-8% of what they’re spending on food. A large university may spend anywhere between three, to six or seven million dollars a year on food. Just addressing food waste can save hundreds of thousands of dollars for that operation.

What do you see as the fundamental connection between business and sustainability?

There are very large companies today that are proving that sustainability makes sense in business. Winnow is an economic no-brainer in the sense that we delivered a 200-1,000% return on investments in year one. 

It’s all about branding: stop calling it “sustainability” – instead, call it “resource efficiency” and you will find much more resonance in your project. Unfortunately, when you talk about sustainability, the immediate reaction of the finance team is: “we’ve got to create a budget for a solution that’s not necessarily going to drive something to the bottom line.” But many businesses will be running at environmental issues if they have the opportunity to save money. Not only it will make their businesses more efficient, but also more resilient to fluctuations in natural resource prices and more credible to their customers.

How would you like to see Winnow continue to grow in the coming years? 

Well, we’ve just opened up an office in the US, so I’m absolutely focused on growing there. Right now, Winnow’s technology is operating in 35 countries around the world, saving its clients about $22 million a year in food costs. We’re saving 15 million meals per year from being thrown away, which is about one meal every two seconds. But with trillion dollars of food are still being thrown away each year, we need to keep in mind that this remains a small step for a very large problem. Solutions like Winnow need to be expanded and replicated in all areas of food distribution and service. 

What lessons from Winnow’s work can we bring into our homes?

We’ve actually implemented Winnow into about 20 homes in the UK, thanks to the support of a supermarket. On average, the homes enrolled have been able to cut their food waste by about 70%!

“What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed” – this adage makes a lot of sense for food waste. Measuring waste enables the consumer to be more aware of what and how much food is being thrown away, leading him to questioning why that is and what could be done differently. At home or in restaurants, the biggest cause of food waste is preparing too much food. It requires some thinking and some planning to buy and then to prepare the right amount of food. Honestly, it’s kind of common sense, but so is exercise and a good diet. 

We also need to put in perspective the real value of food, and to respect the efforts, energy and lives of what it took to grow that strawberry or raise this chicken. Opportunities to reduce waste are numerous and I think that is a space where people will begin creating solutions in the coming years.

Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group–an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.