Weighing up the zero waste opportunity 

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Is the modern refill store here to stay, or will it become victim of the say-do gap? Jim Manson has been weighing up the zero waste opportunity. 

The rapid rise of the zero waste store is being called a retail revolution, and has been grabbing headlines around the world. Across Europe hundreds of dedicated zero waste and refill stores have opened in the last five years, where they have built a dedicated following among the growing ranks of ‘zero wasters’. 

Packing Free Shops In Europe, a 2020 report from Zero Waste Europe and Eunomia, predicts continuing strong growth for the zero waste retail sector. In a best case scenario, it says, the market could be worth €3.5 billion by 2030.  

But can the specialist zero waste retail sector maintain its current, undoubtedly impressive, growth momentum? And how are specialist natural and organic stores – and the wider retail industry – responding to the zero waste phenomenon? 

What is zero waste?
To answer these questions, first we need to ask a more fundamental one: what is zero waste? And the first thing to say about it is that, in virtually any practical setting, it is unachievable. That’s why it is best to think of zero waste as a goal. In fact, the most widely used definition of zero waste – the one created by the Zero Waste International Alliance – invites us to do just that: “It is a goal that is pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are a resource for others to use”. 

Circular economy
The earliest developed thinking about zero waste dates back to the 1980s, when the first globally coordinated challenge to traditional linear production, consumption and disposal patterns was mounted, and with it the call to “break the myth of a world of infinite resources”. 

In the mid 2000s a more connected up ‘zero waste community’ began to emerge, as zero waste went from a term used to describe manufacturing and municipal waste practices to one that defined a rapidly growing grass roots movement. Bea Johnson’s best-selling 2013 book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Home by Reducing Your Waste, has widely been credited with mainstreaming the concept of zero waste. Dubbed “the Bible for the zero waste pursuer” it has since been translated into 27 languages. Zero Waste Home also introduced us to the Five Principles of Zero Waste, which prioritised the actions that ordinary people could make to cut waste – Refuse (to buy things with lots of packaging), Reduce, Reuse, Rot (compost) and Recycle. Zero Waste Home also inspired a new generation of sustainable living activists and bloggers and helped catalyse a new type of zero waste or bulk supply retail scene.

Zero waste bloggers and Instagrammers – some of them with hundreds of thousands of followers – have played a pivotal role in the development of the specialist zero waste stores – and have been the direct inspiration for many new zero waste businesses. One of the most striking features of the zero waste retail scene is how digitally connected it is. This has help create a camaraderie with echoes of the early days of organic. Most zero waste retailers are evangelists for the zero waste lifestyle. 

The rapid rise of zero waste retailing
The rise of dedicated zero waste retail stores has indeed been rapid. Unpackaged, which opened in London in 2007, has been described (by none other than Bea Johnson) as the “first bulk food store of the modern era”. At around this time zero waste stores also started opening across Europe (Unperfekthaus in Germany was another early entrant, and ‘reference retailer’ for aspiring zero waste business owners). 

From around 2015, zero waste retail took off in a bigger way. According to Zero Waste Europe there are now around 2,000 zero waste stores in the 10 countries they surveyed in 2020. Since this excluded the UK (150 stores), Italy and the Nordic countries, the figure for all of Europe is likely to be closer to 3,000. The Zero Waste Europe survey, which only studied smaller, locally owned businesses shows that average store turnover is €170,000 and that 74% of zero waste stores are located in city centres. 

Core offer
The core offer of the specialist zero waste retailer is typically built around a self-serve bulk food, household and personal care range. Loose dried goods are dispensed from a mix of gravity bins and scoop bins, while green cleaning products and liquid-based personal care products are supplied via refill stations. Some larger stores additionally offer self-serve food oils, vinegars, honey and syrups, along with minimally packaged beauty and cosmetics products. More food focused outlets also sell loose organic fruit and vegetables and a dairy (dairy-free)/deli offer. 

Most stores employ a ‘tare-fill-weigh-label-pay’ system (‘tare’ is the term for weighing an empty bag or container). Many report a need for staff to be on hand to supervise first-time customers, and to display  visual explainers – and post ‘how-it-works’ videos on their websites and social media feeds.

The question of how organic and natural food stores should respond to the zero waste trend is suddenly a very real one. Specialist organic retailers and zero waste stores share similar customer demographics. So, many organic and natural stores have in recent years been expanding their bulk product offer, partly as a way of widening their appeal to a new generation of younger green consumers, but also to protect themselves from the new competition. One way they can differentiate themselves from zero waste stores is to offer the widest possible choice of organic loose products – paradoxically, organic is often not prioritised by the new generation of eco-focused zero waste retailers. This is the route that Irish retailer Meanwell has taken. All of the loose goods in its 170 bulk dispensers are certified organic. Owner, Roy Power, says it’s an approach that appeals to the store’s existing customers, but which has also been “capturing a different of consumer – people who are serious about using shopping to address environmental issues”. Meanwhile, UK organic retail pioneer Infinity Foods has brought back bulk supply hoppers after a gap of 30 years (albeit in an updated form – think touch screens and bar codes). 

Not surprisingly, specialist organic chains are also expanding their zero waste offer. At its flagship Paris store Biocoop is now offering 250 products from its refill station, and plans to roll these out nationally. Planet Organic in London now features franchised Unpackaged refill stations in its eleven stores.

Enter Big Grocery
Growing public interest in zero waste and packaging-free retail has also been attracting the attention of major supermarkets. In Britain, Waitrose announced the launch of its Unpacked refill stations, which it is currently trialling in three stores. The retailer says the trial is “designed to test how customers might shop in the future”. Morrisons and Asda have also launched schemes designed to cut single-use plastics. In Switzerland this summer, Coop has been trialling refill aisles in several of its larger stores. And Carrefour has been testing the water in selected Spanish stores. 

But despite the high visibility publicity around these trials, specialist zero waste retailers seem generally sceptical that the supermarkets will be able to make this type of retailing work at scale.   

Is zero waste here to stay?
Will the zero waste concept become a permanent feature of the retail landscape? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively. There are still some significant policy barriers to wide scale uptake. For example, there is currently no harmonised approach to the way that zero waste stores are treated by national and regional regulators in Europe. Then there is the need to better reflect the full cost of packaging, which zero waste proponents say is effectively subsidised because its ‘externalised’ costs (littering, the cost of managing landfill sites and the pollution they cause among them) are not reflected in the price of packaging, disincentivising companies to reduce, or go packaging-free. 

There are also practical and commercial challenges. Supply chains for bulk foods and products, especially organic, are comparatively underdeveloped, which reduces efficiencies and adds to costs (this means retail prices of loose goods are sometimes more expensive than their packaged equivalents). And there is work be done to make zero waste more appealing to brand-owners. Some branded refill station are appearing in stores, but the opportunities are ultimately limited. 

Plugging the ‘say-do’ gap
Finally, there is the consumer. Zero waste (or packaging-free) shopping requires a certain level of planning. How realistic is to expect a shoppers always to arrive at a supermarket armed with an array of their own bags and containers? Even in zero waste circles there is a noticeable ‘say-do’ gap. Rowan Drury, owner of Swedish zero waste store GRAM Malmö, finds it frustrating that “while many people enthuse about the zero waste lifestyle on social media, far fewer actually follow through in the real world”. 

But all of this may simply be teething problems. The pandemic has accelerated change in the conditions that business is conducted. Just as net zero carbon is now at the top of the food industry’s agenda, we could soon see zero waste initiatives running in parallel, and packaging reduction targets required by law. In the meantime, by offering zero waste options organic and natural stores are very visibly confirming their role as eco trailblazers.

• This article originally appeared in, and was commissioned by, Bio Eco Actual.