Unpackaged: Green Grocer Asks Shoppers to Bring Bags, Tupperware, and Jars


Whither Lunchables, that epitome of excessive packaging (and poor health), if the ethos behind Unpackaged, a northeast London grocery store, catches on? Maybe consumers will find that all those plastic containers jammed into Lunchables make handy carriers for their quinoa and honey.
Unpackaged is a store that opened in late 2007 and has garnered lots of attention as a green concept store. As the name implies, nearly all of the goods sold in the store are sold in bulk, so customers need to come prepared with containers. This isn’t all that new, of course. Food co-ops and even mainstream grocery stores have been selling food in bulk for many decades, but the majority of goods are sold in cans or bottles or some other packaging that can’t even be easily reused.
Plus, Unpackaged puts a price on packaging. Customers who fail to bring their own zip-locks and re-born peanut butter jars need to pay about 75 cents extra to use the store’s packaging. But customers are embracing the concept: According to Reuters, more than 80 percent of the store’s customers bring their own containers.

The store sells organic and fair-trade dry goods, produce, and household items such as detergent and shampoo (nearly all of it in bulk).
Unpackaged’s shopkeeper and originator, Catherine Conway, was recently named one of the top 40 eco foodies in London’s Observer Food Monthly.
And she’s clearly on the good side of the Local Government Association, a UK lobbying organization that wants that country’s major grocery chains to help the government pay for recycling programs because, it says, the financial burden of recycling and waste disposal on local governments in the UK is too high. The retail and grocery industry is pushing back, reports , claiming that it has already made strides at reducing packaging and that packaging plays an important role in maintaining food freshness.
Aside from striving to reduce, reuse, and recycle, Unpackaged also works to minimize shipments from suppliers in order to prevent wasteful trips and it has a sharp focus on local suppliers, claiming it doesn’t sell air-freighted items. And based on a statement on the store’s site, Conway is also striving to make the shop and its practices transparent and accountable: “We are developing an extensive sustainability policy based on our triple bottom line which will be transparent, measurable, and cover every aspect of our business.”
Of course, in many ways Conway is just preaching to the choir and offering it the products it wants in a format it’s used to. Isn’t the bigger issue here the fact that kids still love, and demand, their Lunchables? Not unless there was an Unpackaged on every street corner, Conway couldn’t compete with major grocery chains.
That said, there are signs that the behemoths understand that reduced packaging is good for both for business (less freight, less waste) and customer relations. That’s why Wal-Mart launched its packaging scorecard, with the goal of pushing its supplies to reduce packaging by 5 percent by 2013.
Still: Will we even notice a 5 percent reduction? Maybe bulk bins are a better idea.
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Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

4 responses

  1. Good question. They say it’s simple and democratic: if the container add appreciable weight, they weigh it and deduct a percentage (I don’t know the percentage). If it’s very light (a thin plastic bag, for example) they don’t weigh it.

  2. Really, this is about a much larger cultural shift. As long as packaging is cheap, many people (consumers and businesses) won’t think to hard about over-using it, plus we’ve been convinced that packaging makes things cleaner and safer.
    One solution, obviously, is government taxes or price manipulation that makes packaging more expensive. This has worked in Ireland and other places that now tax plastic bags.
    A better idea, perhaps, is to charge more for the disposal of trash. If people suddenly find that they have to pay extra money to throw away all the cardboard boxes and plastic containers they take home all the time, they’ll think twice about taking it home in the first place.
    Ultimately, there’s a lot of satisfaction in taking your own containers to the store and using them – less hassle as you can just put them on the shelves, and less hassle in disposing whether you pay for it or not. But this is a long road for people to adopt.
    This store has done a really good job of marketing “bring your own bag” as a cool and hip way to shop. Maybe that’s what we really need – better marketing? I’m curious if anyone else thinks there’s a non-governmental way to achieve this kind of change?

  3. I think this really turns bulk food on its head. We have probably all shopped at stores that offer bulk – we are 3P readers, after all – but have had to purchase bags or boxes and haven’t thought much of it. Not because of the extra costs, but because of the culture.
    We are taught that just buying the bulk is going one step further than the average joe. Unpackaged is brilliant in that the marketing makes bringing your own container into a gimmick, a thrill, a bit of excitement – shopping is an event now, not just drudgery and excess advertising and the resultant waste, waste, waste.
    Bring it to the states! Please!

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