The Must-Have Condiments Made of Ingredients Destined for the Dump
Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
Jenny Costa, founder of Rubies in the Rubble, has always been interested in sustainability. Growing up on a farm in southwest Scotland, her family home was equipped with a well, wind turbines, and a vegetable garden. What produce the family didn’t eat, her mother would turn into preserves. “As a family we would never waste anything,” she says to me in her office space in Vauxhall, London. “There was a big value put on food and cherishing it as a precious resource.”
In 2012, Costa left her job at a hedge fund to start a business that reflected those values. Rubies in the Rubble buys produce that would otherwise be disposed of from farmers around the U.K. and uses it to make a range of chutneys, ketchups, and relishes. “I’m passionate about people valuing food again,” Costa says. “What Rubies in the Rubble is trying to do is to create products that value food, that add extra life onto something that was perishable, and tell our story through that.”
In January, the Guardian reported that 4.4 million tons of U.K. household food waste produced in 2015 could have been eaten—the waste adds up to over 13 billion pounds ($16.3 billion). “Overconsumption is a really big thing that our generation really needs to change,” says Costa, 30. To that end, Rubies in the Rubble advertises how many pieces of produce are “saved” in each jar: 20 tomatoes in the spicy tomato relish; two bananas in the popular banana ketchup.
But businesses also have a big role to play, says Costa, because a lot of waste occurs in the food supply chain. Globally, more than a third of produce never reaches consumers. In wealthy countries, ripe produce is routinely thrown away by supermarkets, largely for aesthetic reasons. A pear may be thrown out for resembling a potato; a carrot might be unsellable because it’s not perfectly straight. Costa explains, “You get a lot of apples that are over 17 millimeters in diameter, and they’re considered too big for retail because [they’re] tiring to eat.”
The idea of a social enterprise that used wasted food first came to Costa when she was reading an article about dumpster divers—people who dig through garbage bins for edible food. She wanted to find out more so she went around London markets and saw piles of unsold produce being put in bins. The feeling that there must be another way to sell food compelled her to take the steps to start the business. She left her job.
Since 2014, Rubies in the Rubble has outsourced production to factories around the U.K. “The main barrier we had was that nobody wanted to take fresh fruit and veg into the production factories,” Costa says. Many factories use frozen produce to make preserves such as chutney, but Rubies in the Rubble is committed to using fresh food that is nonstandard in size and shape, even though it means the production is slower and more expensive. “A lot of the time it’s done by hand in small batches: hand-peeling bananas, or coring pears. Often cucumbers don’t fit through machines, so you’re doing everything by hand. ... We didn’t want to put any fillers or additives or bulking agents in them as well. And when you’re starting with fresh tomatoes and you’re simmering them down to put into a relish, it takes time.”
About 65 percent of Rubies in the Rubble’s products are sold to hotels and restaurants in the U.K. The rest is sold in jars online, at markets, and placed in high-end supermarkets and department stores such as Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges, and Waitrose. “It was almost a paradox,” says Costa. “We were selling what people were considering as waste into a premium place. … That flip was part of our messaging, saying that this is a precious resource, it tastes as good as everything else. We don’t care about the shape or the size, it’s a natural thing. We just want to make sure it’s really enjoyed and celebrated.”
Although Costa has found that awareness of food waste has increased in recent years, one of Rubies in the Rubble’s early challenges was that people didn’t always understand what the brand was about. “When we started it was a real hit-and-miss notion that we were making chutney from rotten fruit. People couldn’t get their head around the idea that a farmer might be discarding 15 tons of perfect tomatoes every week.” So in her earliest days placing her products, Costa didn’t actually tell anyone about her rationale for starting the enterprise. Rather, she focused on the product itself.
“Businesses with a social angle still need to make sure that what you’re doing best is the business and the service to the consumer, because that’s what they’re buying into,” says Costa. “They’re buying food, so the food has to be really good.” She hopes that part of the reason customers like the products is that they want to reduce food waste, but she’ll settle for customer satisfaction based on quality alone. “A consumer might not have the same interest as me,” Costa says. “So I always want to make sure the products are really good.”
At the same time, Costa’s business is very much a social enterprise by design; she wasn’t interested in running a nonprofit. “I really believe that businesses have a duty to do good,” she says. “We live in a capitalist society where businesses make things tick, and they should be addressing issues in our society through their business.”
Rubies in the Rubble currently employs six people, and the company estimates that to date they have saved more than 660,000 fruits and vegetables from being wasted. The business has received a number of awards, including the 2014 Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award, a 150,000-pound ($187,300) investment from the incubator Mustard Seed, and a recent grant from clothing brand Eileen Fisher’s women entrepreneur initiative.
“I believe there is enough food to feed the planet now,” Costa says. “Rather than cutting down more rainforests and growing more crops, we should just be utilizing everything as best we can.”