Buy unpackaged – Catherine tells you how

Filed in Guest Posts by on October 21, 2010 21 Comments
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Catherine Conway - founder of Unpackaged

Catherine Conway - founder of Unpackaged

Our guest post this week is from Catherine Conway <gets up off knees>

A slightly roundabout route studying Spanish, living in Latin America, working for a human rights charity and running a local regeneration project led Catherine to found her own business in 2006 – Unpackaged.  Unpackaged is a shop in London that has done away with packaging and asks consumers to bring and refill their own bags and containers.

Catherine hopes to expand the concept into other areas so that everyone can have a local Unpackaged selling healthy, affordable, organic food and household necessities without any unnecessary and wasteful packaging.

Today she shares her story…

Reuse and refill

Unpackaged is a local organic refill grocery. Since we opened in 2007, our aim has been to sell fantastic products and help our customers shop more sustainably by offering everything in refills.
Our policy is to sell high quality, organic & environmentally sustainable products, sourced seasonally & directly from local producers; extending our philosophy of reuse both up and down the supply chain.

Social enterprise

My mentor Liam Black once said that there were only two things a social enterprise should worry about; financial sustainability & social impact as everything else is superfluous. Because of the world, and the times we live in, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the finances of our business that sometimes I forget what we’re doing this for.

A modern idea

Some of my happiest times are spent buried in research, looking at Unpackaged as a whole, seeing how we fit into the modern food supply chain and why we think our way has much to offer. So, in a nutshell, this is why we do what we do:

Co2 reduction

1. C0² reduction from less packaging – There is an average 48% reduction in emissions each time a product is refilled from Unpackaged (1) compared to the same product bought in traditional packaging.

Reducing waste

2. The reduction of material waste from landfill & incineration – For an indicative set of 10 products refilled across the year, 118 pieces of packaging are saved from landfill. (2)

Food waste

3. Less food waste as customers can buy just the amount they want – 8.3 million tonnes of food is thrown away by households in the UK every year, the equivalent of 20 million tonnes of C0² emissions every year (3)

Positive behaviour

4. Positive behaviour change – We help our customers consume more sustainably. 60% of customers said that since they started shopping with Unpackaged they do not buy over-packaged products in other shops (4)

Financial benefits

5. Economic benefits across the supply chain:

• Producers: Producers gain better margins on bulk products

• Customers: Save money by not spending on packaging (the annual cost for the average family is £470 (5) and by buying only what they need rather wasting it (average annual cost of wasted food is £480 (6)

• The Community: Research carried out into sustainability in business and the health of local communities shows that the act of reusing and refilling products made locally keeps money in the local economy (7) £1 spent with a local supplier is worth £1.76 to the local economy whereas the community only benefits from 36p if it is spent with a chain (8)

Diverse solutions

However, there is always a danger when people, or organisations, think theirs is the only way – we fully recognise the need for a diverse range of solutions to the complex problem of food related climate change. We’re part of the solution and just trying to be the best at what we do.


Unpackaged will celebrate its third birthday in November 2010, testament to our fantastic and committed customers who share our vision for a more sustainable world (and a nice chat over the counter as they shop!) We’re brimming with ideas of how to develop and replicate our model to make it available to many more people and the more we grow and can invest in our business, the higher our social impact will be. Our vision is a world with less wasteful packaging and we’re achieving it one customer at a time!


(1). Unpackaged Giraffe innovation Greenhouse Gas Assessment 2008
(2) Internal estimation. We look forward to getting this externally verified when we can afford it!
(3) WRAP
(4) Unpackaged 1st Birthday customer survey
(5) Women’s Institute packaging campaign
(6) Ibid WRAP
(7) Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce p144-145
(8) New Economics.

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (21)

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  1. Julie Day says:

    This is a good idea, and I wish there were more people who do this. I try to buy unpackaged fruit and veg and if not, then ones with packaging that I can recycle at Sainsbury’s, usually their own stuff, inc bread.

  2. Poppy says:

    We used to have a similar store locally and I’ve no idea why it closed, but I would certainly welcome the return of either that one or one of yours Catherine. The prospect of buying loose goods appeals big time 🙂

  3. Mrs Green says:

    @Julie Day: Hi Julie; I think it would be marvellous if more stores did this – just like the ‘old days’ eh? 😉
    @Poppy: We had one that stopped business too – I can’t understand it as most things were way cheaper than pre packed 🙁

  4. John Costigane says:

    Hi Mrs Green,

    Unpackaged is yet another business highlighted on MyZeroWaste showing how retailers have added their voices to consumers in the Zero Waste trend. The big difference is that Catherine’s great efforts have pre-dated our trend. Any enthusiast staying in, or visiting, the capital can enjoy the Zero Waste experience, using home containers. Other specialist retailers (Lush for example) tend to have stores in cities throughout the UK and this might be the best way to grow the business in the future.

  5. John Ashwell says:

    Wonderful, just wonderful. My spirits are fully lifted now. Would Catherine please come and open a similar store in our local town of Horncastle, or even Boston (Lincs). And thank you Rae, for posting this article.

  6. Hi All,

    Great to see your comments – I imagine other shops shut because it is incredibly difficult to compete with the modern convenience/ cheapness of supermarkets! But we believe in what we’re doing so onwards and upwards.

    We’re working on a model for replication as a social franchise, helping people set them up in their own communities, the best way to keep updated is via our monthly emai, sign up on the website (hope that’s not too much of a plug!)

    Thanks @MyZeroWaste for inviting us to contribute!

    Cath Unpackaged

  7. John Ashwell says:

    Have just signed up on your site cath. I’m a member of Transition Town Horncastle. I’ve sent this piece to everyone else. The thought of us running a collective, Unpackaged store in Horncastle is very appealing.

  8. Jane says:

    We used to have a health food store which sold many things like this including peanut butter and we used to buy huge jars of it when we were students. Those were the days! Later I remember it being suggested I might like to remove my toddler from the beans. So much for buggy harnesses – he’d escaped!

  9. Sooz says:

    Oh this sounds like the shop of my dreams! I hope to see many Unpackaged all over the country (world!?!?) soon!

  10. abbie says:

    This is so brilliant! Wish we had a store like this by us. We use our bulk bins as much as we can but at our small town grocer those options are pretty small. Why do they think we all need chocolate covered pretzels and yogurt covered pretzels so much in bulk? hehehe

  11. Sam in HK says:

    Catherine you are an inspiration and so are you Mrs Green. I live in Hong Kong but Zero Waste is a wonderful source of ideas that can be applied worldwide and thank you to the Green family for all you are doing to help those of us who would like to do more.

  12. Mrs Green says:

    @Sam in HK: Hi Sam; welcome to the site and thanks for your lovely comment. Hope to see you again 🙂

  13. Igor says:

    Hi, unfortunately not in all countries it is allowed to sell food without packaging or better to be put in customer’s containers, eg. Italy. I used to buy cheese, meat and meat products in my own containers, when living in Germany. At least they started to offer liquid soap and other detergents to be filled in your own containers. It’s a long way to go … at least in Italy. But of course, people should ask and demand non-packaged products and do some pressing on parliaments …
    Keep up the good work!
    Cheers, Igor

  14. Mrs Green says:

    @Igor: Thanks for sharing your experiences Igor; it would be great to see Catherine’s work being replicated across the world.

  15. Lena says:

    I remember time about 25 years ago in my country – there was no way to go to the shop without our own shopping bags. If you did so, you were likely to end up having just armfull of your purchase. There were no plastic bags. Fruit, veg and even meat were put in simple brown packs made of cheap paper, often recycled one. The only stuff I remember being packed in plastic was milk and yogurts. Then a revolution came and all the “great stuff” from western countries…which included plastic bags and packing. Everybody was overwhelmed and most of the people still is. It is so easy to get used to wastage and comfort of plastic…and easy to complain about the mess around.

  16. Mrs Green says:

    @Lena: great story, Lena – which country are you in?

  17. Jeanett says:

    Hello all! I am new to this exelent site and I was overwhelmed reading this article. Lucky London to have this kind of store and good luck to all of you who will open one up! I live in the southern part of Sweden and Gothenburg (the town closest to my home) does have, I think, three ecological stores but not this kind of service. Places like Unpackaged should be all over the world and children at school ought to be taught about the way of thinking this site and others like it, want to show.
    Thank you and good luck!

  18. Mrs Green says:

    @Jeanett: Hello Jeanett, welcome to the site. We all agree that shops like Unpackaged should be around the world! I hope we see more of you commenting on the site 🙂

  19. joddle says:

    Hi I think Unpackaged is a great idea.

    I was wondering about the practicalities of running a shop in this way. For example, what kind of packaging does the food come to the store in?

    Also is there any problem with health and safety which means that not all products can be sold in this way?

    @Igor I especially like the idea of refillable soap bottles. I know a lot of people prefer liquid soap however I couldn’t bear to waste the plastic each time I bought shower gel or hand soap

  20. Mrs Green says:

    @joddle: Hi Joddle, welcome! Questions about health and safety are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Hopefully Catherine will come back and answer your questions about packaging and the H&S aspect.

  21. Marvin Brown says:

    I totally agree with need to reduce packaging. Word of caution about food though! I do not want people breathing on what I am about to eat or sneezing on it. So want to see lids on containers. I see that people have complained about children with runny noses handling bakery goods in M&S in the UK- see .Thanks for the though provoking article!

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