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On the Loose

Eco-grocer Catherine Conway's London store is winning the war on packaging, one scoop at a time.

Author Clare Dowdy Photography Max Diamond

“PAPER OR PLASTIC?” is the typical question at grocery store checkouts. “Neither,” is the emphatic answer at Catherine Conway’s London food shop, Unpackaged. An organic grocery store that might be called “BYOC” (bring your own containers), Unpackaged opened its doors in 2007, selling just about everything a typical market carries — only without the throwaway packaging. Customers at this busy, modern shop in the city’s Islington section find walls lined with barrels, buckets and bins overflowing with flour, tea, yogurt, jam, veggies and just about everything else (as long as it’s organic, local or Fair Trade), which customers scoop into canisters and reusable bags they’ve brought with them.

Taking sustainable one step further, Conway stores dried goods like arborio rice, apricots and Brazil nuts in matte black tubs labeled with chalk, eliminating the need for wasteful bits of printed paper. The ethos seems to appeal to Londoners. In the year and a half since it opened, Unpackaged has built a loyal clientele, many of whom Conway knows by name. Because so many of her customers bring back their own containers, Conway estimates her store generates around 1.5 fewer tons of CO2 emissions every year than a conventional store. (If a shopper happens to show up without his or her own container, Conway will sweetly, though begrudgingly, supply a sturdy resealable plastic bag.)

Massive supermarkets have programmed the consumer to expect, and even relish, heavily branded and packaged goods — not to mention the good ol’ paper or plastic option. Unpackaged is about changing how we think about shopping. And in Conway’s London cornershop, it seems to be working.

HEMISPHERES: How did you come up with the idea for Unpackaged?

CATHERINE CONWAY: Well, I hate the waste of packaging, and I couldn’t understand why it’s so hard to buy groceries without it. It would seem as though packaging adds obvious cost, waste and pollution. It’s a waste of resources, from production and storage to transportation, removal and disposal. So I hunted down the suppliers of my favorite organic and environmentally friendly products and sweet-talked them into offering me bulk — hence unpackaged — products. I started out selling from a stall in London’s Exmouth Market and got lots of feedback from customers on what they’d be willing to buy loose.

Describe your store’s ethos, in a nutshell.

We source Fair Trade products where possible; we don’t sell products that are shipped by air; we give preference to suppliers who are part of cooperatives; and we apply the three basic principles of the “waste hierarchy”: reduce, reuse and recycle. Unnecessary packaging increases the price of the goods because you’re effectively being charged twice: First, when you buy overpackaged goods, and then through your taxes, which are spent getting rid of the leftover rubbish. Packaging is usually disposed of either in a landfill or by incineration, both of which are major pollutants. Of course, some packaging can be recycled, but only some. Despite our best efforts, most of what we bring into the home ends up in a landfill.

What are your top sellers?

In terms of quantity, it’s the Ecover cleaning products and the dry goods, like pasta and nuts. That’s interesting to me, because if you go into other whole food shops, dry goods are usually stuffed way in the back because they take up space and are low-value. But ours are right at the front in these big tubs, and we sell a lot of them. In fact, part of my mission is to get people to cook from scratch with whole foods, so I’m really pleased the nuts are doing well.

What has surprised you about how the business has developed?

At first I was just concentrating on packaging and didn’t think too much about suppliers. But now it’s all about suppliers. To reduce packaging you have to buy locally because products that travel long distances need to be protected. So we’ve been able to stimulate local production, which is a really exciting surprise. For example, our cakes are made by the nearby Lavender Bakery and delivered once a week in an electric courier vehicle. I’m also doing tie-ins with local restaurants, like the nearby Konstam, which sources all its ingredients locally and supplies us with chutneys. I get to promote their business, and in exchange they make a few extra jars and walk them over in a Tupperware box.

What’s next for the store?

We’re working on getting a [pedal- powered] delivery service up and running. There’s a massive market for office deliveries. At the moment it’s me with a bike squeezing in drop- offs before or after work. Beyond that, I’d really like the refill model to become the norm, with people using their own containers for all their shopping, not just at Unpackaged. It should be second nature to think before you buy. Planning will have to become commonplace.

Can you ever really imagine the Unpackaged retailing model catching on in other stores?

There’s some resistance, sure, particularly from companies that profit from selling us a convenience lifestyle, where everything is precooked and heavily packaged. I despise the supermarket model because every element of it is unsustainable. It’s really turned the production of food into a business-based exercise with long supply chains and goods over- packaged to help them survive the journey. And of course the refill model is incompatible with big supermarkets’ business approach, which is “pile it high and sell it cheap.”

Where does that leave Unpackaged?

This will potentially work to our advantage. We can design a different way of doing business that’s more compatible with the new world we live in — meaning one affected by climate change and fluctuating oil prices. No more massive supply chains, no more driving to the supermarket. Instead we’ll have products that are locally sourced and purchased by people who show up on foot.

Clare Dowdy is the author of One Off, a book about the best-designed independent shops in the world.

6 Responses to “On the Loose”

  1. Shantanu Kumar Das Says:
    May 21st, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Its interesting to read this. I come from India and for most of my childhood / youth, we always used to shop at stores which had almost everything unpacked (90% of grocery) – rice, lentils, salt, sugar, cooking oil etc. At that time, I aspired to shop at glitzy stores where you could enjoy the convenience of picking up packed groceries. Now, I am in US and everything is packed and we use exceedingly high volumes of plastic, which we don't necessarily recycle – by the way, even recycling has its costs and consumes energy. Its refreshing to know that we are going back to 'older', lower consumption ways of living. Very good and timely story!

  2. Lindsay Yaw Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Is this the next step in grocers? Super cool way of avoiding packaging and going local!

  3. Martin Hardwidge Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I think the store is great, and Caroline took an interest in a piece I wrote on my blog packaging-radar.com. As an idea for a great independent store and supplier of quality produce, brilliant. It's the 'war on packaging' bit I can't stomach. I don't know how many people Caroline serves a week, but in order that some people can choose to buy unpackaged, the majority of people have to buy 'packaged' from a supermarket, because that's the only way we can safely and economically feed all the people. The sheer numbers make that the case. What Shantanu (below) doesn't mention is the waste of food inherent in the market system in India, which means that up to 50% of all food produced is wasted. The right level of packaging is important to make sure we waste little and that food reaches us safely, but it's great to offer options. I just hope that nobody drives a long way just to avoid buying packaging, that really would defeat the object!

  4. Green 11 Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    San Francisco shop focuses on selling personal care by weight. Customers bring in their own container. Cleaning products such as kitchen, bath and glass cleaners are sold in concentrate with consumers buying just a few ounces and diluting with water at home! http://shopgreen11.com

  5. dana Nichols Says:
    June 11th, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    My dream is a large retailer with this philosophy.

  6. Debbie Says:
    July 27th, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I love this concept and hope it translates well to the states.