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Danone & Lemon Tri Partnership

Updated: Feb 4, 2023


Elliot Anderson / Head of Financial Inclusion at National Australia Bank

In this guest blog, Karen Deignan of Net-Works interviews Frédérique Rathle (featured left) to find out how Danone Water France worked with start-up Lemon Tri to create Lemonaide, which employs previously long-term unemployed to increase low recovery rates of PET bottles. LemonAide is an inclusive business that collects empty plastic water bottles and prepares them for recycling. It is staffed by people who were previously long-term unemployed. During their six-month work placement with LemonAide, they receive training, mentoring and social support to help prepare them for the mainstream job market.

Since March 2017 14 people have taken part in the programme and more than 100 tonnes of plastic bottles have been collected for recycling. LemonAide is a partnership between Danone Water France, recycling start-up Lemon Tri, and non-profit organization FACE (Foundation Against Exclusion). Frédérique Rathle is sustainability director of Danone Water France.


How did the idea for LemonAide come about? Danone Water began working with Lemon Tri around 4 years ago. We were looking for new solutions to help us increase the recycling rate of PET plastic bottles. These bottles are 100% recyclable, but the sorting and recycling rates for them are low – 55% in France, but as low as 10% in big cities like Paris. Lemon Tri had developed a “reverse vending machine”, which takes back empty water bottles and gives people a money-off shopping voucher in return. Danone Water formed a partnership with Lemon Tri to scale up the presence of these machines in big shopping centers around Paris. As the quantities of empty bottles being deposited began to increase, we needed to develop a collection solution. That’s where the idea for LemonAide came from. We collect the empty bottles from the machines, condense them into bales, and sell them on to recycling companies. Those companies turn them into recycled PET, which they supply back to Danone and others, completing the circle. LemonAide is naturally a circular economy business, but we wanted to make it an inclusive one too, with a positive social as well as environmental impact. We decided that we would offer jobs to the long-term unemployed, with the aim of giving them the skills and confidence they need to re-enter the mainstream job market. With funding from the Danone EcoSystem Fund, which promotes skills and employability, we set up the business as an inclusive social enterprise. We formed a partnership with Lemon Tri as the owners of the reverse vending machines, and FACE, which provides training for our employees. We also formed an agreement with the local authorities in Pantin (a suburb of Paris) to recruit our employees from job centers located in an area of high unemployment (the 93rd department). In exchange, the government subsidizes some of the cost of the employment and training.

What motivated you personally about the project? When I started my job as sustainability director my focus was mainly on the environment. With LemonAide, I was able to add a social angle, too, and I found that very motivating. To me, inclusive business is about accepting people who have been rejected or excluded from mainstream society, for whatever reason. Through LemonAide we are giving one such group of people – the long-term unemployed – a springboard to a better life. These are people who didn’t get the right chances in life and they have no confidence in their own capabilities. We help them see their value and potential and give them back their self-confidence. What challenges have you faced in setting up and running LemonAide? The main challenge has been adopting a start-up mindset, having been used to working in a large corporation. We needed to be more agile, learn while doing, and sometimes take a leap and start things before we felt fully ready.Other than that there were no big barriers for us. Everyone internally was supportive. We spent almost a year developing our business plan and had some pro bono support with it from the consulting firm McKinsey. The CEO of Danone Water presented our plan to the Danone EcoSystem Fund, and we were lucky to secure €800,000 funding. Day to day, the partnership with Lemon Tri and FACE works very well. We meet once a week and take all decisions about the business together. It’s a genuine collaboration, with each of us bringing different strengths and skills to the table.

What impact has LemonAide had within your organization? The main impact has been with our employees. They are very proud that their company supports this kind of business. Every year we have an event called the Danone Day and last year when I presented LemonAide, I had lots of colleagues contacting me afterwards asking how they could get involved. We now have several employees from Danone acting as tutors to the LemonAiders, giving support and advice for a few hours each month. What’s been the high point of the journey so far? When we submitted our application to register as an inclusive social enterprise, we expected it would take weeks or maybe months. But our application was approved in just one week because the registration authority felt our idea was so great! That was a fantastic moment. Welcoming the first cohort of LemonAiders was another highlight, as was the celebration we had when they completed their placement. The celebration doubled up as the official launch of LemonAide to our customers, partners and the media. We got a great response and lots of press coverage. But the best bit was seeing the six LemonAiders, who six months earlier had no confidence in themselves, standing proud and feeling ready to go out into the workforce again. Where do you want to take LemonAide next? We want to expand LemonAide to other big cities around France – Marseille first, followed by Lyon – and then other big cities in Europe. We also want to increase the cohort sizes with each six-month placement. We started with six people in the first one; now we have eight in the second, and eventually by year three we want to get to 24 people per cohort.

What advice would you give to other intrapreneurs wanting to create an inclusive business? Seek out the right partners to work with you, as it’s unlikely you’ll have all of the right competencies within your own business. Be aware that setting up a new business like this will take up a lot of your time. I used at least 80% of my time in the early days. There is just so much to do. So you need to have agreement from your boss and your company that you can dedicate all of that time.

This blog post was originally published by Ethical Corp, in partnership with The League of Intrapreneurs and Net-Works.

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