Not long ago, everyone was careful about the use of materials. My mother used to tell me the story when a truck would come with glass bottles of milk at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents would take a few bottles and give back the empty ones.
At that time, resources were expensive and valued. Since then, materials have been cheaper, convenience and comfort have led us to a throwaway society. This has resulted in well-known disasters: pollution of the land, the ocean, and the air, depletion of resources, impact on global warming…
For the last four decades NGOs, companies, grassroots movements have been fighting to raise awareness around the waste issue. Today more than ever their message is being heard. Worldwide, people, companies, communities, cities and states are taking action to resolve this problem.
Unfortunately, Singapore is still lagging in this fight compared to European countries. But things are changing. Today, we will talk about Unpackt, the first “zero waste” grocery shop in Singapore, opened in May 2018.
In Singapore, Unpackt is the ambassador of a new trend of shops: do-it-yourself (DIY) and packaging-free concept. Click here to read more. This store tackles down one of the major producers of waste: packaging!
In June 2018, I have the chance to meet one of the founders of Unpackt, Ms Tay. Here are some of the highlights:
How did the idea of packaging free business come up?
Firstly, I thought about a social enterprise so we will have our own business and support charities. But then I remembered that “instead of feeding a fish to a man, you are better teaching the man how to fish”. I looked at tons of business ideas. Then I came across this video of a simple grocery store in Europe. This concept was very relevant to us and we worked to make it happen.
We made the conscious choice to not open our first shop next to a mall or supermarket where the traffic is higher. We wanted a location with lower traffic where we could spend more time with the customers to give them recommendations about Zero Waste lifestyle.
Zero Waste at work
As a way to expand our business and educate people, we do deliveries for corporate pantries where the turnover is higher. We believe that habits taken during business hours can be easily replicated at home. Today, companies are more environmentally conscious. We benefit from a multiplier effect.
The dilemma between making a profit and ensuring that consumers do not buy more than what they need.
We have been approached by marketing companies to increase our sales. One of them claimed that if we use a loyalty program we could increase our sales by 50%. Nevertheless, we declined them all as it is not the way we want to do business. We are very challenged by making a sustainable business. We must be ethical.
When it is about presents, we do not recommend buying a product for a friend as we need to understand the friend lifestyle and see how we can advise him or her in reducing waste. Therefore, we recommend e-vouchers.
The biggest challenge is with suppliers
It is actually surprisingly easy to help people adopting a low-waste lifestyle but educating suppliers is very difficult. They are profit driven and storage has a cost. In order to minimise waste from the delivery, we have invested in reusable containers to be used by our suppliers. Some have been very supportive of the process even if it involves more work on their side. Others, however, argue that it could represent a risk for their merchandise. Also, suppliers get products from overseas with their own packaging which make the transformation more challenging.
Your best reward?
One of my best rewards was one of our neighbours who shops with us. She used to bring her own ziplock bags. It was hard for me to serve her as I knew she would throw away the bag once back home. But on the third time, she brought her own reusable container and a friend to present the store and the concept. She was sharing awareness.
What about the future?
We see an increasing demand for zero waste shop and we are very proud to prepare the opening of a second shop in the city centre.
UnPackt’s story is a great illustration of how people of passion and ethics will drive changes into the Singaporean landscape. The challenges faced by Unpackt with suppliers shows the need to pursue efforts among businesses to demonstrate the economic sense of Zero Waste programs.