Interview: Small shops, big hearts
Catherine is an activist and social entrepreneur who set up Unpackaged in 2006, having worked in the private, public & NGO sector. With nearly a decade promoting Unpackaged and refilling in retail, Catherine is at the forefront of the Zero Waste movement. This e-interview with Catherine sparked the development of a short case study on the social functions of Unpackaged as a small shop with a big heart.
What did you do before starting Unpackaged?
I have worked in a variety of different fields – the public, private and voluntary sector. Before I set up Unpackaged, I worked in community development for a London based charity (NGO) – working as a bridge between large corporates and small local charities brokering skills, help & support from the companies for the charities. I’ve always been interested in the interplay between business and civil society.
Why did you start Unpackaged?
I started the business because I was fed up with the packaging I was throwing away every time I went shopping. I was refilling Ecover cleaning products at my local organic shop but couldn’t understand why I couldn’t refill all my other groceries too – I felt that there had to be a better solution.
What was the first thing you did to get the idea off the ground?
I was working at an NGO and one of the first things I did was change my working hours to 4 days a week so I could seriously focus one day a week on working on the Unpackaged idea but maintaining a bit of protection by still being in work – it was too risky to jump straight in. Then I started working through the details – was this going to be a shop that people came to or a delivery service that took the products to people’s homes? After that I focused on creating a really strong brand to communicate the idea to customers as I knew how important it would be to explain what we were trying to do, as well as sell the products.
Why is Unpackaged needed/ why does it matter?
As a global society, we need to prepare for the reality of climate change, resource shortages and peak oil (remember oil is the basis of all plastic packaging, and oil is also necessary as fuel to transport goods in the insanely large supply chains we have developed). The average time a person holds a piece of packaging in their hand, in the home, is something like 20 seconds - we just won’t be able to use valuable resources for such short term items when the raw materials start running out. The Unpackaged refill model is based on prevention and re-use and a sustainable supply chain. This is the most desirable aim of the Waste Hierarchy which all businesses should be aiming for.
What has the customer reception to Unpackaged been like?
Unpackaged has always existed at the forefront of refilling when it was a relatively unknown concept (in the mainstream, it still is!). As such we’ve always attracted early adopters - i.e. our customer base is mainly people who know they want to shop without packaging and they seek us out as a solution – they’re very receptive to the idea. The other part of our customer base are people who didn’t necessarily know they wanted to refill but understand the concept when we communicate the benefits with them.
What have been the main challenges of Unpackaged?
Competing against the supermarkets (with the volumes they can shift and corresponding cheap prices) is really hard, especially in a global recession & the ‘age of austerity’ where all families have to watch what they spend on groceries. London is a particularly expensive place to run a small independent shop so it was always a challenge to ensure the business was financially sustainable.
What have been the main successes of Unpackaged?
Unpackaged, set up in 2007 was the first full Zero Waste shop, selling over 700 products, building up a loyal customer base and inspiring others to set up similar shops. Unpackaged continues to push the boundaries of refilling.
What is the future of Unpackaged?
The global landscape is much more positive for Unpackaged than before because of all the other Zero Waste shops than now exist – we’re all independent but together we’re a movement. There is also much more acceptance of environmental issues in general due to all the focus on global Climate Change negotiations etc. Unpackaged is a mindset more a way of doing business, it can be adopted in any sector although food & groceries will always be our first love!
Corner shops are an essential part of the life on streets. They provide an invaluable service for local communities, offering people day-to-day goods and services within easy reach. As more of our everyday goods succumb to the pipeline of mass production, it is crucial to reassess the value exchange of our corner shops beyond its retail offerings. Therefore, the following sociological perspective hopes to inspire small retailers to rethink their role in this community; as one that has the potential to shift human behaviors and enforce environmental change bottom up.