Innovative shop Unpackaged is at the forefront of a consumer revolution

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It sells everything you could ever need for a great meal. There's only one catch – it won't give you anything to take it all home in.


If you ever find yourself eyeing the kitchen bin guiltily, with its vast mound of plastic packets, cardboard containers and wrappers, you might be interested to know there's a whole movement that aims to go one better than even recycling: precycling, or cutting out packaging in the first place.

Among those at the forefront of this consumer revolution is Unpackaged, a first-of-its-kind shop that eschews all packaging and invites customers to bring in their own containers and Tupperware to stock up on essentials such as flour, cereals, nuts, pasta, rice, lentils and so on. Bring bottles for oils, apple juice, wine and even gin. Simply weigh your container when you arrive so it can be deducted from the overall weight and then get filling. Not only will you save money but by foregoing packaging you'll reduce the amount of material waste being either sent to landfills or incinerated.

Although Unpackaged has been operating out of Islington since 2007, it has just moved into a new store in Hackney, east London. With the larger space it can now offer a greater range of products, as well as a bar and café (headed up by chef Kate de Syllas, a well-known local chef who previously worked at Dalston's A Little of What You Fancy).

Unpackaged was founded six years ago by Catherine Conway, who got the idea while decanting rice from a plastic packet into a jar at home. She started out doing market stalls specialising in eco products and a small range of wholefoods and nuts. "I wanted to see how people reacted. Would they bring their own containers and refill?" Conway says. "It did really well and we ended up with two market stalls but it was a bit impractical lugging all the stuff around."

The company has a clear philosophy that includes sourcing organic, fair-trade products where possible, supporting artisan local producers and applying the principles of the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse, recycle – to all parts of its operation. "We've really upgraded our systems, our dispensers, and we've got more range."

This commitment to reducing waste and packaging is present in every aspect of the store. As well as using unsold produce in the café, instead of printing off labels for products it uses black tiles with erasable white wax pencils. It even has a solution for that most eco-unfriendly product, the takeaway paper coffee cup, with its "The 1,000 Cup Countdown" scheme. Unpackaged has pledged to provide 1,000 biodegradable cups, each of which comes complete with an RFID tag that will tell you more about the company's aims and if returned will score you a free coffee. When it runs out of cups, customers will provide their own takeaway mug or sit in for their morning cappuccino.

But what if someone new to the values of the store wanders in looking for some pasta? "The whole point is to take people on a journey with you," Conway says. "If someone comes in and they're not green and they don't have any containers, I don't want to say that I won't serve them because they go away with such an awful view of what we do. Whereas if we say that this time we'll provide them with a small paper bag and next time they can bring their own, then it takes them two or three goes and they'll come around and end up bringing their own."

As well as general groceries (fresh bread and organic fruit and veg can also be picked up there and there's a dairy section), Unpackaged carries a large selection of bumper-sized Ecover products that can be decanted into old bottles (you'll save roughly 50p for each litre of product you refill rather than buy new). It even sells compostable loo paper. "We want to be the local store," Conway says. "We want them to come here rather than go to a supermarket." Conway hopes to spend more time developing an own line of Unpackaged products and she also hopes to set up other branches around London. But at the moment Unpackaged finds its dedicated customers are travelling from all over. "They're coming for the atmosphere as much as what we're trying to do."

Unpackaging beyond Britain

1. In.gredients

Chosen as one of Entrepreneur magazine's "100 Brilliant Companies 2012" after the initial idea was crowd-funded online. In.gredients established itself with the innovative idea of supplying local produce, entirely packaging-free, to the residents of Austin, Texas since opening in August 2012.

2. Rainbow Grocery

San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery Co-operative has a packaging-free bulk section with over 800 products to be bought, including 30 varieties of flour. For customers bringing their own containers, Rainbow Grocery takes five cents off each item bought, but also has jars and recyclable bags on sale.

3. Effecorta

Effecorta's first store opened in Lucca, Italy two years ago with the team behind the business soon opening a new store in Milan after its success. Effecorta opened in Lucca two years ago with the mission of encouraging local production of food, reducing waste and healthy eating.

Oliver Smith

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