“Most of us are here because we want to save the world,” Catherine Conway tells the group of about a dozen women assembled in a co-working space in East London. “But how many of you actually have retail experience?”
A few women raise their hands. Others look around sheepishly.
“Here’s the reality check — if you don’t have a long-term, financially stable business, you can’t help anyone.”
“OK, so a couple,” Conway says. “Here’s the reality check — if you don’t have a long-term, financially stable business, you can’t help anyone.”
The participants — who all happen to be women — have traveled from all over the world to attend this one-day workshop with Conway. One participant flew in from the United Arab Emirates and another from Northern Ireland. They are experiencing a dose of Conway’s tough love, but more importantly, they are here to learn about running a zero waste business.
If you’ve never heard that term before, it’s basically an entire store that is like the bulk section in your local market, where customers bring in their own containers and there is little to no plastic packaging. Conway, who is the founder of a consulting firm called Unpackaged, is a bit of a guru in this department.
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“The kind of people who want to run these businesses tend to be idealistic. I was 100% like that myself.”
“The kind of people who want to run these businesses tend to be idealistic,” she says. “I was 100% like that myself.”
Back in 2006, Conway, frustrated by the useless packaging all around her, opened a stand where you could refill dry goods and cleaning products. They expanded into a shop, then a restaurant. She was putting in long, grueling hours, but the restaurant just wasn’t making money.
“We struggled for a year and then we had to close down,” Conway remembers. “It was awful. I lost my own money, I lost investors’ money. It was really, really, really painful.”
After her loss, Conway took some time and eventually realized she could help other people learn from her mistakes. Now, when Conway holds workshops for people who want to start zero waste businesses, she talks to them about everything from basic business principles to identifying a customer base to specific considerations for this type of store — like how to clean bulk containers and what to do when a customer accidentally overfills their bag of oatmeal. She warns them about challenges they might not have thought about — like the fact that dealing with bulk goods is incredibly physically demanding.
She is also brutally honest with them about their chance of success.
“I genuinely think anyone can do this. I had no retail experience except working in a shop as a teenager. But for a lot of people, if they are really honest with themselves, it might not be the right time in their life to do it.”
“A lot of small businesses — something like 80% — go bust in the first few years,” she tells participants. “I genuinely think anyone can do this. I had no retail experience except working in a shop as a teenager. But for a lot of people, if they are really honest with themselves, it might not be the right time in their life to do it.”
Despite all this real talk, the participants seem encouraged, not disheartened. Kimberly Adams is originally from Atlanta, but she works for a nongovernmental organization based in the Middle East. She wants to set up a shop in Jordan to help marginalized people live more sustainably. Adams says the workshop made it all feel doable.
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“To actually see the containers, to realize this is how it works, this is how much it costs, this is what it looks like — this is insider information,” Adams says.
Karen Strathern traveled to the workshop from Northern Ireland where, she says, many people still consider a zero waste store to be a pretty far-out idea.
“It’s so nice to be in a room of people with the same mindset. Sometimes, I get a wee bit embarrassed talking about reducing waste with friends back in Northern Ireland. I don’t want to be the preachy person.”
“It’s so nice to be in a room of people with the same mindset,” Strathern says. “Sometimes, I get a wee bit embarrassed talking about reducing waste with friends back in Northern Ireland. I don’t want to be the preachy person.”
She said the workshop gave her a lot to consider.
“I think I’m shifting my goalposts a bit,” she says. “The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to put myself in a vulnerable position, doing something [I] can’t sustain. Catherine [Conway] said, ‘You don’t have to be all things for all people.’ That was a nice message to take away from it.”
“And this is not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Adams adds. “I still want to do it. It’s a worthy endeavor.”
Adams and Strathern are just starting their journeys, but business partners Luzaan Allison, a commercial artist by trade, and Kerry Coughtrey, a graphic designer, have opened their zero waste food shop, The Greenhouse, in Pulborough, a village in West Sussex.
“It’s good to be slightly terrified. It keeps the momentum going,” Coughtrey says.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Allison adds. “But, hey ho, we are going to learn. We’ll teach each other.”
Unpacking a big supermarket
Conway doesn’t just advise individuals who want to start their own no-waste business. She’s also consulted with the Waitrose supermarket chain on a pilot store in Oxford that offers less packaging.
When you walk in, the store they are calling Waitrose Unpacked looks like any other supermarket — lots of plastic bottles and packaging on the shelves.
But a small map indicates the areas in the store that are a little bit different. There’s an Unpacked Hub where you can pick up reusable containers, as well as a refill station with dry goods, frozen foods, wine and beer. A few aisles down, there’s a refill machine for cleaning products.
Shopper Lizzie Thompson, who’s getting ingredients for a cake, says that this initiative has made her shop at Waitrose even though it is more expensive than other local supermarkets.
“The low packaging is a big motivator for me to come here instead. It is so much better for the environment. Since they’ve started doing this, I don’t think I’ve bought anything wrapped in plastic. There is always an alternative that is plastic free.”
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“The low packaging is a big motivator for me to come here instead,” she says. “It is so much better for the environment. Since they’ve started doing this, I don’t think I’ve bought anything wrapped in plastic. There is always an alternative that is plastic free.”
Customer David Lambert says that Waitrose Unpacked really raised his awareness of the issue.
“I do notice the amount of packaging when I shop elsewhere now,” he says. “It’s been a good thing. It’s been an eye-opener, more than I thought it would be.”
In a report published in November, Waitrose said that the response to Waitrose Unpacked pilot had been “phenomenal.” Later this fall, the supermarket chain rolled out the initiative at several other locations. This December, Waitrose confirmed sales of refillables — including pasta, lentils, cereals, frozen fruit, coffee, wine and beer — are outselling their packaged equivalents by 68% at the Unpacked locations.
Conway says she knows that Waitrose Unpacked is far from perfect — there is a lot of plastic that still needs to be cut out. But for her, the wide reach is the most important thing about this project.
“We have to remember that in the UK, 96% of people shop in a supermarket so whilst you could have a shop that is small and beautiful and 100% refillable, very few people shop there as compared to the scale of [those] who shop in a supermarket.”
Conway says the Waitrose success brings her lots of hope.
“When I felt most hopeful recently was on that first opening week of Waitrose,” Conway says. “It was full from day one of ordinary-looking shoppers with their own containers and bags, going, ‘Yeah, no problem. This is great. Why haven’t you done this before?’”