Retail’s role in a plastic-free future

17 December 2020, 12:05 PM
  • Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged, explains how independent retailers can lead the charge on sustainable packaging
Retail’s role in a plastic-free future

Sustainability has been a key word of 2020, and the food and drink sector has come leaps and bounds in past few years when it comes to single-use packaging – but there are still more changes to be made, according to Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged – an innovative business offering retailers of all sizes refill and reuse formats.

“So much of it is about knowledge,” Catherine says. “I’m so amazed when I go to packaging trade shows at the 98% conventional plastic packaging and just 2% innovative options. A Plastic Planet has their stand where they show off of these different materials and applications, and I’m astounded that packaging designers don’t think about how their packaging is going to be disposed of when it’s designed.”

Consumers appear to be the ones driving the charge. “The consumers of tomorrow don’t want single use packaging, and they’re going to be both the consumers and employees of the future,” she explains. “We have a world-class packaging industry, and while I’m often positioned in opposition to packaging manufacturers I just want them to shift their focus from designing single use packaging to designing durable, reusable, refillable.”

So what can retailers do to spur change in the industry? Unpackaged has worked with independents and multiples alike – from Planet Organic to Waitrose and Marks & Spencer – to help food stores implement reuse and refill systems as a way of solving the single-use packaging crisis.

But these solutions might not be right for every business. “Retailers first have to consider who their customer base is; if a shop is selling nothing but ready meals, there’s no point putting in bulk aisles of arborio rice because that’s not what their customers are buying or where the impact lies,” Catherine says.

And while 80% of the market is still in-store, there is also now a home delivery window that offers new opportunities for reuse and refill. “There’s a lovely mobile market stall/truck in Hackney that goes round people’s streets and they can refill their products,” Catherine says. Indeed, as the zero waste movement has grown, the industry has seen a growing fleet of mobile zero-waste shops. “It’s not just the big guns that can do home delivery.”

Even taking a critical eye to your product offering could help you reduce your plastic footprint. Catherine explains: “Because of what happened with Covid, supplies drying up and space needing to be reallocated to other things, retailers have rationalised their range – in doing so avoiding unnecessary packaging in their stores.”

Independent food retailers, many of whom have seen a boost in business since the pandemic hit, also have an educational role to play. “We now need to help NGO campaigners to be championing reuse, trying to educate people on the reuse and refill model. There’s a great swathe of customers who can make this change and should be doing so,” Catherine explains. “We need a big shift, in marketing, operations, in-store experience – it’s a long term project, and we should all be doing something.”

Looking for more ways to boost your eco credentials? Download your free copy of A Sustainable Future 2020, produced in partnership with Speciality & Fine Food Fair for more exclusive insight from sustainability pioneers.

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