Amber Haukedahl’s journey to zero-waste shopping started with a toothbrush.
Four years ago, the conservation biologist from Minneapolis decided to cut down on her plastic consumption, investing in household alternatives like mesh produce bags, unpaper towels and bamboo cutlery. But when Haukedahl turned to buying a bamboo toothbrush, the only options she could find were on Amazon — an e-tailer whose packaging habits she says would have “totally defeated the purpose.”
So Haukedahl, then 33, decided to become the retailer she was looking for. In 2018, she launched Tare Market, an e-commerce outfit selling products like reusable cutlery, washable face rounds, and compostable dental floss in plastic-free packaging — and shipping them in upcycled boxes and compostable packing. A year later, Tare opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Minneapolis’ leafy lakeside Nokomis neighborhood, following a successful online crowdfunding campaign.
As the leader of workshops about how to live a zero-waste life, Haukedahl already knew plenty of potential customers. “People [are] like, ‘I really want to live this way, but I don’t have time to research all the best environmentally friendly products,’” she says.
Tare, which opened its second Minneapolis location in April, is one of a growing cohort of “zero-waste stores,” retailers that sell mostly in bulk or using compostable packaging, to customers toting reusable containers. Since 2015, hundreds of zero-waste stores have opened across the US, says Celia Ristow, who tracks the sector’s growth on her blog Litterless. California has Fillgood in Berkeley, the Re-up Refill Shop in Oakland and Homebody Refill in Sebastopol. Seattle has Scoop Marketplace and Mimi’s Zero Waste Market. Portland, Oregon, has Realm Refillery and Mama & Hapa’s Zero Waste Shop. New York City has The Filling Station and A Sustainable Village in Manhattan, plus Precycle in Brooklyn. Even Poland, Ohio — a town of fewer than 3,000 residents — has a zero-waste store called Sustaining Bliss. As more Americans find themselves existentially distressed by everything from trash gyres in the ocean to microplastics in our bloodstreams, many are spurning single-use plastics and bringing retailers like Tare increasingly in vogue.
BYO Bins, Bags, and Boxes
For a shop that sells 135 bulk food items, Tare maintains a sleek and minimalist design. Instead of rows of individually packaged foodstuffs, the 1,000-square-foot store has dozens of bulk bins, where shoppers can fill their own containers — or grab a “donated” container — with everything from organic oatmeal to red lentils. Rather than plastic jugs of laundry detergent, dish soap and hand soap, Tare offers each from a dispenser, as it does beauty products like argan oil, jojoba oil and aloe vera. In between the bulk goods, the store’s shelves are artfully stacked with products like Marley’s Monsters flannel unpaper towels, toothpaste tablets, and, yes, bamboo toothbrushes. Packaging for all individually wrapped items is biodegradable.
Other than Ristow’s list on Litterless, there is no central tracking of zero-waste stores in the US. But there is growing evidence that consumers are demanding less packaging. Kaela Martins, senior manager of environmental programs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, points to stores like REI, which eliminated the sealable plastic envelopes it had used for shipping individual items of clothing, as well as a partnership between CVS Health and venture firm Closed Loop Partners to test out reusable packaging options. Major supermarket chains in Europe and the US are making similar moves: Some Carrefour locations in France and Kroger locations in the US have signed up for TerraCycle’s Loop service, which provides and cleans reusable glass and metal containers for shoppers.
Jennifer Bartashus, a retail analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, specifically points to the proliferation of package-free stores in Europe, where the trend has been gaining traction for a decade thanks in part to a long tradition of open-air markets. “There’s only a certain segment of customers that this format is going to resonate with,” Bartashus says. “But I think this type of store definitely has appeal.”
Consumer interest is even spurring a cottage industry of workshops to help entrepreneurs meet the demand. “I get emails every week from people who are interested in opening up a zero-waste store,” Haukedahl says. Since 2014, Berlin-based Original Unverpackt has been offering a 190-euro ($193) course on how to open a package-free store. In the US, Haukedahl points interested parties to Seattle’s Scoop Marketplace, whose educational branch offers a three-part free workshop on opening a zero-waste store, as well as a 10-module class for $3,500. Two years in, Scoop owner Stephanie Lentz says 45 people have taken the paid version.
By the time Brittany Snipes decided to start a zero-waste shop in Portland this year, there were models to look to. The 29-year-old entrepreneur and her boyfriend, 27-year-old Ryan Knowles, wanted to model their store, Realm Refillery, at least in part on two other plastic-free shops: Nada in Vancouver and the Refillery in Edinburgh. Both are full-service grocery stores with personal care sections, in addition to selling dry goods.
Since opening in May, Snipes and Knowles say business has been swift. In addition to bulk dry goods, plus produce and bread from a beloved nearby bakery, Realm Refillery has a cold bar stocked with local favorites like Choi’s kimchi, Trazza hummus, and Fermenter’s vegan sauerkraut. An Oregon law bars customers from bringing in their own food containers, but for $2 apiece Realm customers can effectively rent glass jars in perpetuity. (Snipes and Knowles are also active in efforts to change the law.)
Startup costs aren’t the only obstacles for zero-waste retailers. Grocery stores are already a notoriously low-margin business, small stores have less purchasing power, and environmentally sensitive products tend to be more expensive as it is. That makes customer loyalty particularly important.
“If you are frequenting a zero-waste store, you likely have a belief system you are backing with your shopping behavior and are willing to spend money to support that cause,” says Bloomberg’s Bartashus. She also posits that the higher costs for consumers might be offset by buying smaller quantities more frequently, as opposed to stockpiling packaged products.
Diversification helps, too. Realm, for example, credits its success with selling home goods and personal care items. “Those profit margins are higher, so that’s helped us balance it out,” says Snipes, who is also planning to introduce grab-and-go food, another higher-margin offering. “We want to do empanadas, dumplings, frozen pizza — but have it in a double-lined paper sack,” she says.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for zero-waste stores, though, is living up to the spirit of their mission — which often means prioritizing solutions versus striving for perfection. Some zero-waste stores still sell individually wrapped items, albeit often in compostable packaging, and some customers might buy dozens of tote bags or reusable containers, which are all carbon-intensive. Fresher food can also (counterintuitively) lead to more food waste, though some stores are making efforts — like with food donations — to counteract this. Finally, even though the people who shop at zero-waste stores are eschewing plastic, most consumer products and many commercial food brands still rely on plastic packaging. Even the most climate-conscious shopper will find it difficult to avoid entirely.
Ask owners and advocates of zero-waste stores, though, and they’ll say that it’s more about starting to change behavior than presenting a cure-all. And there’s plenty of evidence that habits can be changed. “All across the country now, people have become acclimated to bringing their own bags,” says Bartashus. “So training them to bring a container may not be a difficult next step.”
To contact the author of this story:
Hannah Wallace in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org