The plastics problem has gone from background noise to headline news in the past nine months. Since that episode of Blue Planet II, it seems everyone, from politicians to business leaders to consumers, is finally realising that the plastic problem is real and demanding a change. The so-called ‘Attenborough Effect’ caused online searches for ‘the dangers of plastics to the ocean’ to more-than-double, whilst site visits to the Plastics Oceans Foundation increased by 35%. With Plastic Free July – when people will ‘choose to refuse’ single-use plastic for the month – just beginning, we were eager to talk to Catherine Conway, founder of zero waste consultancy Unpackaged.
For Catherine, eliminating packaging waste has been her business for over twelve years. By developing systems that enable retailers and individuals to reuse and refill, Unpackaged was pioneering the zero waste retail business model long before David Attenborough made it fashionable. As she tells us about her journey, Catherine makes clear the harsh realities of setting up your own business, particularly when no one wants to listen. Nevertheless, Unpackaged survived and is now thriving.
Sure, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the plastics story. But we are reminded, talking to Catherine, that the onus is on everyone – not just retailers – to shift our behaviour if a zero waste future is going to become the reality. Plastic Free July is all very well, but will we sustain those behaviours after the month is over?
Catherine, we’re eager to hear about your journey – how did it all start?
So it was 2005. I was working for a charity and trying to live an ethical life in my mid-twenties in London. And because there was a mouse in my Bethnal Green flat, I had to put all my food in glass jars. So I would go to my local health food shop and get refills for my Ecover products but, when I got home, I would immediately put all of the dry goods I’d bought into glass jars. I remember one day just sitting there looking at this pile of plastic packaging in front of me, from the muesli and pasta, and thinking, “This is crazy! If I can go and refill Ecover then why can’t I just go and refill everything?”
Now, that sounds obvious now, but this was back in the day when there was no circular economy, no #zerowaste, nothing like there is now. And the online communities helping people to set up shops or share information amongst consumers just didn’t exist.
I’d always been interested in looking at how businesses could help charities to solve social problems. Whilst working for the charity, I also became involved with the people who set up Impact Hub and they introduced me to this concept of the ‘social enterprise’. I got onto a mentoring programme hosted by ?What If!, an innovation consultancy, and had exposure to all of these amazing social enterprise people, or people who had done really innovative projects and tackled things in an interesting way.
So all of this was going on whilst I’ve got this ‘packaging-free’ idea in the back of my mind and I thought, well, if I set up a shop where everything is refillable, it’s likely to make more of an impact on people’s behaviour than a simple information campaign. Everyone would do this behaviour change exercise without even thinking about it because they would be buying into the concept just by walking through the shop door. So that was the light bulb moment.
Cool! So you had your idea. How did you bring it to life?
I spent about a year working on the idea whilst still in my charity job. A friend of mine who worked for Social Enterprise London said, “Why don’t you set up a market stall? That’s a good way to test a shop concept.”
So I applied to Unlimited and got a ‘level 1’ award, which is a few thousand pounds, and with that I paid to get my branding. I realised that if we were going to take the packaging off of everything then we would need serious branding to be able to communicate the message on what we do.
So I got the branding, got myself a website, found a wholesaler, got it all delivered to my parents’ garage in Putney, found a market stall and just set up. I spent a year going around different market stalls, doing all of it out the back of my mum’s Nissan Micra. And there were days where I didn’t even sell enough to pay for the congestion charge to get to the market pitch. However, slowly but surely, I developed a real customer base. It got to the point where people were saying, “Oh, why don’t you sell this product or that product?” And I just couldn’t carry all of the stuff around. So I started looking for a shop. I managed to find the most beautiful building, on Amwell Street in Islington, and we set up there in 2007 - almost exactly a year after I began my first market stall.
In that shop we had 700 products and a team of staff. To start off with I was there six days a week, twelve hours a day, and on Sunday I would do my accounts before starting again on the Monday. It was hard work but I was 29, didn’t have any responsibilities and had all of the energy in the world. I was fired up by my own belief. It was great and we were there for five years.
Sounds too good to be true…
Well, yes. The problem was that my landlord owned the deli across the road. So I’d had to sign a restrictive lease meaning I couldn’t sell extra things like coffee and sandwiches, which could have tipped the balance in favour of it being a really profitable store. It was also 2007 and the beginning of the global financial crisis, which is not best time to set up a successful business.
But, in any case, you were the first proper ‘zero waste store’, right?
It sounds a bit grandiose but, yes, we were the first modern zero waste store in the world. Various companies had done bits of bulk – I’m not suggesting that I devised bulk selling – but what I did is take the solution of an old-fashioned way of shopping and marry it up to the problems of packaging and overall climate change, and made it really sexy and attractive.
And that was necessary because my target market was never the hard-core greenies, it was the everyday Sainsbury’s shopper. I had to create such an appealing shopping experience that people would want to walk out of the house with an empty olive oil bottle and shop with me rather than go to Sainsbury’s down the road. So for five years we did that.
So what happened after the five years?
After our lease ended we moved back to Hackney and I added on a restaurant – which turned out to be the wrong move. It was meant to be a zero waste restaurant, like Silo in Brighton, but it was probably a bit too ahead of the game and we didn’t execute it properly. So we closed down that site.
After that, I had a bit of a rethink about our next move. And, to be honest, I just didn’t have the energy for going back in and running a small shop because my dream has always been bigger than that. I wanted to scale the idea, get supermarkets on side and get as many people refilling as possible.
I thought I was a terrible person because my business had failed. We often don’t talk about failure enough, and people are scared by it. But, in fact, a fear of failure can lead you to make bad decisions.
In the meantime, I started working at the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which is a fantastic organisation that brings food service businesses and change-makers together around key issues of sustainability. However, ironically, the same week I took that job, Planet Organic, who I had been talking to for ages, came to me and said they wanted to start an Unpackaged branded concession in their Muswell Hill store. And that’s how the next phase of Unpackaged was born. We’re now in four Planet Organic stores and hopefully expanding into all seven.
So, since your comeback, how has the business evolved?
Unpackaged now has four strands. For our ‘concessions’ strand, like we have with Planet Organic, we fit out retail outlets with bespoke refill stations and products. Second, we offer consultancy – whereby I help people all over the world set up small zero waste stores like I did. I help them understand what it’s like to run these types of businesses and help them not waste their money or make the mistakes that I did. I find that really satisfying. I help people in London, Scotland, Guernsey, New York, Hong Kong, Sweden, Portugal, NZ, all over the world, which is great.
The third strand, which we just launched, is the ‘Unpackaged At’ unit – an off-the-shelf solution for pre-existing businesses like farm shops, delis, butchers and greengrocers. They buy the unit from us, we train them up, install it within a day and they join our membership programme to get ongoing monthly reports. The ongoing support is important because for bulk selling to work you have to do it really well. You’ve got to know what you’re doing otherwise it can look tired, rusty and dusty, which wouldn’t be a great experience for the customer.
Finally, the fourth strand is innovation work around re-use. I am always thinking of new ways of pushing the boundaries around refilling and reuse.
What was the tipping point for Unpackaged? When did everyone jump on board?
It’s been twelve years, and everything has changed since Blue Planet II. Although people demonise plastic when in fact any form of single-use material is a problem, nevertheless, the consumer demand is now there whereas it wasn’t when Unpackaged started out.
Thanks to mainstream media, the masses are now clamouring and beating a path to our door to get advice on packaging-free, bulk and reuse. The thing is, nobody really knows how to do it and I guess we’ve got the most experience. There are lots of companies coming out with statements like, “By 2025 all of our packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable.” But nobody actually knows what that means in practical terms…
Except Unpackaged! You’ve learnt the hard way to get to where you are today. What were the biggest learning curves when you were starting out?
The problem is that, although people understand the problem with packaging waste, they don’t follow through with the behaviour change when faced with the price of packaging-free alternatives. Everything has become so cheap and disposable that it’s very hard to explain why things made with thought and care should cost more money. People either don’t understand or don’t care enough to change buying behaviours.
Everyone is obsessed with millennials and their apparent desire for transparency, ethics and authenticity, yet they also buy clothes from online clothes retailers, whose clothes are all presumably made in sweatshops somewhere, hence the price that they’re selling at. So I do question millennials’ obsession with ethics. However, there is a much greater awareness of ethical issues now, which helps with trying to sell our kind of concept.
That’s true – people’s behaviour is largely out of your control…
Yes. Interestingly, trends that have helped Unpackaged in the past are the rise of veganism and of wellness. People started wanting to buy nuts and seeds in bulk – the ingredients that go in smoothies. Nowadays, all of the things that you see on Instagram probably contain our kind of products.
I try to help business owners understand what sheer hard work it is getting a business off the ground and what percentage of businesses fail. No matter how good your idea and how hard you work, if you’ve got the wrong timing it won’t work. You can easily think that if only you did X, Y and Z then the business would work, but then something happens like a global financial crisis and people just tighten their belts and don’t want to spend money on food. There’s not really much you can do about that.
Having been through what you’ve been through, do you still have the same passion for Unpackaged and its mission?
I do now. Even though I’m twelve years in, I have been reinvigorated by the fact that everybody now gets what I’m talking about. I saw that packaging was a problem, I saw that plastics were a problem and I kept thinking that there was something wrong with me, that if I did it better then more people would be making a change. I genuinely thought that if my idea was good enough then I could make real change. And to a certain extent I have. But now, finally, everybody is onboard it feels great. People are listening, and that’s totally revived me.
What is your favourite thing about work now?
The variety. I do a different thing every day. I like being in new places, going to see new people. Doors are quite easy to open now, given that I’ve been going for so long. Within the world of circular economy, I’ve got enough experience under my belt to be listened to by some high-level decision-makers.
It just feels like I’m actually achieving what I set out to achieve, which feels nice… Although turns out it’s got nothing to do with me, it’s down to David Attenborough and that baby whale!
What’s your vision for the future of Unpackaged?
I see us growing the projects we’ve already got - getting them to the bigger players. By getting our ‘Unpackaged At’ units out there, we hope to create a network of retailers that are all selling things in bulk. And we’re also working on bringing the innovation ideas to life.
On a personal level, do you have any sustainability challenges?
I have just as many challenges as anyone. In fact, it’s been very humbling not owning my own shop anymore. While I had my own shop, I had 700 packaging-free products at my disposal. Now, I have to be really strategic. So, yeah, I have exactly the same challenges as everybody else.
But, you know, we can all do more. If we are living comfortably and educated about these issues then we should be responsible. If we choose to ignore it then there’s not really any excuse. You do have to choose to slightly go without. I’ve made the decision this year to not buy any new clothing. If there is something I genuinely need then I can go on eBay or to a charity shop.
Also, I really should be a vegetarian – I really should. It would be the most sustainable thing for me to do. And I haven’t quite got over that hurdle yet. So yeah, I have lots of personal challenges and we should all be doing more. It’s about a shift in priorities and being really honest. We give ourselves an easy ride. We know that if we buy clothes cheaply, it’s made in a sweatshop. If you buy cheap meat, an animal has suffered for it. That is the reality.
Image by @melliandsophie
We like Catherine’s honesty. It’s humbling to be reminded that we can’t always be successful straight away. Having a good idea and clear mission will get you so far, but the world has to be ready to come on that journey with you. Thankfully for Unpackaged, the world is now on the same wavelength when it comes to single-use packaging. We hope that Plastic Free July is not just a month-long fad, but the start of sustained behaviour change for many people.
Check out other game-changing developments and sustainable solutions to the global plastics problem in Edie’s brand new report. Or, for more inspiring stories from around the world on zero waste, refill, reuse, packaging and sustainability, head to the Unpackaged blog.