Prior to Covid-19 The Clean Kilo in Birmingham was a proud packaging-free grocery chain.
Shoppers at the city’s two branches, in Bournville and Digbeth, would arrive with reusable containers and fill them with flours, cereals, nuts, and seeds from the tall glass dispensers lining the wall. Fresh fruit and veg sat unwrapped in wooden crates, while oils, liquids and vinegars could be decanted straight into empty bottles.
But as infection rates began to accelerate across the UK in March, owners Jeanette Wong and Tom Pell knew instantly they had to adapt.
Before even some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets had made changes, the pair had restricted entry to their two stores to only a handful of shoppers, 45-minute queues snaking out the door of their Bournville store as customers stocked up on toilet roll, pasta, flour and “anything that would last really.” Strict cleaning rotas were introduced, with the handles of self-serve dispensers sanitised between each use.
But with so many touchpoints in the store, it quickly became clear that staying open “wasn’t manageable,” says Wong. “We made the decision to close our Digbeth store and only offer click and collect in Bournville. We felt it was safer to close off the shop completely and pre-pack the food ourselves.
“It’s difficult as it isn’t zero waste anymore, but we knew we had to adapt the business to survive.”
They aren’t alone. With the pandemic turning touch into a taboo and every surface into a possible source of infection, many zero waste shops that had been thriving pre-pandemic are now having to rethink the fundamental ethos of their business.
While less than 12 months ago, 51 per cent of consumers complained that their food was wrapped in too many layers of unnecessary packaging, Covid-19 has fuelled a rethink. As early as April, 40 per cent of consumers said they’d changed their views on packaging as a result of the pandemic, with 66 per cent saying they now see it in a far more positive light.
For zero waste grocers, built off the back of growing demand for packaging-free, it’s a blow.
“We’ve worked so hard,” says Emily Gleaves, the owner of the Waste Not Want Not plastic-free shop at Birkenhead market, in Liverpool. “There’s been a big zero waste movement in the UK for two years now and we’ve tried really hard to get it to a certain place. It feels like now we’re taking a step back.”
Having spotted self-serve shops getting attention on social media, but with the closest one over 40 miles away, she surveyed local residents to gauge interest and – when hundreds responded – quit her job and founded Waste Not Want Not in 2018.
As soon as Covid-19 began to worsen in the UK, she changed the format. Whereas before, customers had filled their own containers, she immediately switched to staff-serve only. Refillable containers were banned and instead the shop began to serve products in paper bags. “There’s waste and it’s frustrating but under the current circumstances there’s not much we can do,” says Gleaves.
Such was the challenge that Gleaves took the decision to close the store temporarily. Not least as she needed time to plan a move into bigger premises nearby, where she’d hoped to expand the zero waste concept. “But I don’t know how to go about it,” she adds. “It’s hard as a business owner to know what angle to take. In one way you want to reassure people that things are back to normal, that they can dispense their own food and bring their own containers.
“But on the other hand, some customers might feel it’s not good enough and want stricter hygiene measures. It’s such a difficult decision to make.”
At the Zero Green store in Bristol meanwhile, which sells everything from baking ingredients, to spices, toiletries and vinegars in a waste-free format, the impact of Covid-19, and the need for contactless shopping, has been severe. “We tried staying open but there are so many touchpoints in the shop that it became really hard,” says co-founder Stacey Fordham, who set up the store with Lidia Rueda-Losada in 2018.
The pair temporarily switched to online deliveries and collections, and recently reopened in the afternoons “so customers can come to the door and grab a few items”.
“But we’re still pushing larger shops to online,” explains Fordham. “We’ve had to furlough most of the team and sales have reduced dramatically, but we’re really grateful that we’ve been able to trade at all.”
Back in Birmingham, Wong says both branches of The Clean Kilo have now reopened, though hours have been reduced by more than 50 per cent. Inside, the shop still looks vastly different, too. Queueing systems are still in place, customers are urged to wash their hands before entering and all dried goods are still prepacked.
Although Wong is hopeful that it won’t be long before a zero-waste approach can return, for now the experience is a little different. “Using your own containers is part of the excitement of going to a zero waste shop. We’ve lost the interactive experience that makes the business unique,” she says.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly created challenges, says Fordham, but she hopes that the pandemic has also made more people think about the planet when they shop. “Our customers trust us, and I think most zero-waste shops have that relationship with their customers. They will know we are doing the right thing,” she says.
“Hopefully, this has taught people that we can all make a change to our planet in a positive way if we all act, shop and live in a more local and sustainable way.