Retail industry thinking catching up with Unpackaged

Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged

Operating a retail store where the produce is sold via refillable containers brought in by the customer was ahead of its time even in the hipper parts of East London, which resulted in innovative business Unpackaged having a tough time.

Despite the challenges and closure of its only store in 2012 its founder Catherine Conway remains resolutely positive on the back of the market gradually coming around to her sustainable way of thinking.

Since Retail Insider featured Unpackaged as an Innovative Retailer in December 2012 much has changed. Social media has given a voice to those championing zero waste, technology is providing a platform for the creation of solutions to help reduce waste, and retailers much more clearly recognise the cost benefits of cutting their levels of waste alongside the ethical rationale.

This changing landscape enabled Unpackaged to strike a joint-venture deal with Planet Organic in February 2015 to host an Unpackaged section within its Muswell Hill, North London, store that has a wall of food dispensers from where produce can be decanted into refillable containers.

Conway says it has taken 18 months to “bed in” and this learning is now being taken to independent stores as well as early discussions with some supermarkets who are all interested in how they can better adopt a zero waste mindset.

In terms of the Unpackaged-type solution she says it seems ideally suited to the smaller stores and independent sector, although she enjoys the challenge of making it relevant to larger, and more mainstream operators: “My heart belongs to the independent sector where there is a community focus and people have time to say ‘hello’. We’re working with retailers in Portugal, Costa Rica, London, Ireland and Hong Kong,” she says.

Her vast experience, and deals struck with equipment suppliers, can save retailers a serious amount of wasted time and money when pursuing a zero waste strategy: “For a very reasonable consultancy fee I can short-cut their efforts – with months of effort reduced down into easy to digest workshops.”

The extension of this consultancy work is a new concept that enables retailers to buy into bulk selling through the purchase of dispensers in a configuration tailored to each client.

“We’re creating a package for retailers with all the support they need to make refilling a success in their own stores. “It’s a really exciting new development for Unpackaged that will enable us to move out of London, and bring Unpackaged to a wider audience ,” explains Conway.

She also has a number of other interesting projects that are under development and all further highlight her innovative thinking on how sustainability can be a reality within the retail industry and not just something that is talked about.

Glynn Davis, editor, Retail Insider