Selling a waste-free lifestyle

Is it possible to run a retail store that does not produce any trash? Muneerah Bee finds out from Florence Tay, co-founder of UnPackt, the first zero-waste bulk store in Singapore which opened recently offering food and daily lifestyle products without unnecessary packaging.

UnPackt aims to solve the problem of food waste and excessive plastic packaging.

Why did you decide to open a zero-waste grocery store in Singapore?
Florence Tay: I was motivated to do so after seeing that this could be beneficial for society in many ways. Eco-consciousness has always been a part of my lifestyle, and I want to advocate this lifestyle to other people. For my co-founder Jeff Lam, as someone who lives alone, he realised the disadvantages of overbuying groceries and other household needs. Buying more than you need, especially for food items, means that the food and its packaging will be wasted eventually. We both saw the need for a business that pays attention to consumer and environmental needs rather than being solely focused on making profit. Choosing environmentally-friendly options not only helps the environment, but also the people who live in it.

What do you hope to achieve with this zero-waste grocery store?
Tay: We want to make environmentally-friendly grocery shopping more available to Singaporeans, and on a societal level, to promote the economic and environmental benefits of this lifestyle. Taking small steps will eventually accumulate big changes, and we hope that stores like UnPackt will help Singaporeans take that first step. We also want to empower disadvantaged communities by employing them, and to support other local start-ups.

In a way, we are bringing back the kampung (village) spirit by building a community that cares for each other and the environment we live in. This ties in with the two meanings of our name: firstly, to ‘unpack’; reducing the need for packaging waste, and for our customers to make a ‘pact’ with us and commit to making changes in their lifestyle.

What are some of the initiatives that UnPackt will implement for the store and customers to ensure a zero-waste policy?
Tay: We want to spread the message of the no-waste lifestyle through outreach initiatives. For the future, UnPackt is looking into conducting educational workshops and activities about environmental consciousness at our store. In conjunction with this, we will help Singaporeans to put what they learn into practice. UnPackt aims to work closely with consumers to understand their needs for living the no-waste lifestyle. We are looking into expanding our product selection and have provided a wish list for in-store shoppers to indicate any new products they would like to purchase, from grocery shopping to home cleaning. We believe that this will help them to implement no-waste options in more aspects of their lives.

What challenges do you foresee in implementing them?
Tay: We need to become more easily accessible for Singaporeans, so we are hoping to open more stores across Singapore. Additionally, we need to get people to make the initial commitment before they see how easy and affordable it is to make small changes that help the environment.

How have your customers responded to your zero-waste concept?
Tay: Thus far, the response has been positive. Many customers are surprised and pleased that it doesn’t cost more than what they usually spend on groceries. Saving money is an additional benefit of our concept, but we do want to emphasise that this only happens if you make wise choices. Our prices are similar to the market rate and calculated by weight. This is so you can buy only what you need, rather than getting the most ‘value-for-money’ option but wasting the rest of what you don’t need.

For example, if you buy a makeup remover towel, in time you will break even as compared to buying packs of cotton pads that need to be replaced indefinitely. Once consumers understand the value of reusable no-waste items, they realise that it’s actually an investment for the future.

How do you ensure that the logistics and supply chain aspects of UnPackt are in line with your zero-waste policies?
Tay: We purchase stocks from suppliers in bulk and recycle the packaging. We also pass the packaging over to those who request for it for various purposes, such as students who need materials for school projects. As mentioned earlier, we aim to understand our consumer needs: this means that we procure from suppliers based on demand, preventing food waste. We brought in a small selection of products based on the consumer market survey which we conducted in early April, so that we can gauge how well they are received without wasting any excess.

How can more retailers join the zero-waste movement in Singapore and Asia?
Tay: Consumers can make statements with their choices. If retailers see that there is a demand for zero-waste practices from consumers, we believe that they will be motivated to adopt such practices. We hope that retailers will look at their practices in a new light by considering the essential needs of their business and cutting down on excess waste that is generated. UnPackt also takes requests from businesses to help with planning to go packaging-free; they can drop in to the store with their business cards, or they can contact us through Facebook (fb.com/UnPackt.SG) or email (florence@unpackt.com.sg).

Could you share your future plans to launch an online version of UnPackt?
Tay: E-commerce is on the backburner for now as we are currently prioritising our bricks-and-mortar store.

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