Unpackaged was set up in 2006 as the world’s first modern Zero Waste grocery, where customers were invited to bring their own packaging to refill, instead of generating new packaging to take their purchases home.
Unpackaged is a bricks and mortar retailer that ensures packaging is reused, although they are working on a delivery concept.
In the last decade, the company is increasing its impact, as they have grown from a small shop, to a larger shop in Hackney with a restaurant and now a concession within Planet Organic as they develop a model that brings the refill concept into other grocery shops, specifically supermarkets, which is where the majority of UK consumers shop.
The company runs a consultancy business helping other people set up Zero Waste shops all over the world and their consultancy work for larger companies brings the ‘Unpackaged’ way of thinking into their businesses – whether its designing out waste in the supply chain, inspiring their design teams or innovating products and services to bring refilling to mainstream consumers.“We recognise that the real circular solution is wider than enabling customers to bring their old containers down, we need a ‘reuse infrastructure’ to support the reuse of food packaging for both retail, as well as food service and takeaways.” said founder Catherine Conway. In the past year, they have worked with Ecover, Lush and Farmdrop amongst others.
“Packaging, which is mainly made of plastic, is the scourge of the modern environment.” Whilst some packaging is necessary, a lot of everyday single-use grocery packaging is not – indeed it is criminal to use the resources, and dispose of them via landfill or incineration after such a short lifespan.
Each year, 311million tonnes of plastics are produced, 25% of which (78 million tonnes) goes into packaging. Only 14% of this is recycled annually and, of that, only 2% is actual closed-loop recycled (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). This shows a staggering loss of $80 – $120 billion worth of resources after a short single life cycle.
An average customer basket refilled over a year saves 118 pieces of packaging.
Unpackaged’s independent research shows an average 48% reduction in C02e emissions when a product is refilled at Unpackaged vs a comparable single-use product. Moreover, Unpackaged engenders positive behaviour change amongst customers. The Unpackaged shop achieved an 80% refill rate amongst their customers, and over 60% of customers said that since they started shopping with Unpackaged chose not to buy over-packaged products in their shops. When people feel that their environmental actions matter, they’re more willing to take other actions and this leads to a snowball effect.
The challenge is how to replicate that in large-scale, global, supply chains.
Their vision is to see packaging as a circular service that gets products from A to B, and back to A again, with no waste. However, they find significant challenges applying Circularity to consumer packaging. Whereas other sectors (textiles, electronics) can easily pivot into rental models; various factors (low material value, issues of hygiene and consumption patterns), make it extremely difficult to apply circularity to consumer packaging.
Due to the fact that there are very few bulk shops in the UK, the supply chain simply doesn’t exist as there is very little demand for wholesalers to pack in bulk beyond traditional wholefoods so, to a certain extent, they have had to create new supply chains working with smaller independent producers who share their vision. The challenge is how to replicate that in large-scale, global, supply chains.
“One challenge is to ensure that any reuse model provides real financial, operational and environmental benefit across the supply chain otherwise it won’t be adopted by mainstream business.” says Unpackaged founder.
The Unpackaged model continues to be the dream for the company, who keep testing, refining and rollling out. Only by real-world trials (which, as pioneers, you could say all of their outlets have been!) can you gather the right data to assess the operational, financial & environmental benefits.
2018 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for Unpackaged as they roll out their supermarket model with Planet Organic, and partner with some much bigger private and public sector organisations to design new ‘refill’ products and services to continue to achieve their vision of a world with no unnecessary packaging and resources preserved for future generations.