Q&A with Catherine Conway, Director of Unpackaged
Q: What makes you stand out?
A: Unpackaged is committed to finding zero waste solutions. Our vision is a world without unnecessary packaging for all your daily groceries & household items. By reusing containers and refilling them there are significant environmental benefits. There is an average 48% reduction in CO2 emissions each time a product is refilled from Unpackaged compared to the same product bought in traditional packaging. And you’re not sending any packaging to landfill or incineration either. Less food is wasted as customers can buy just the amount they want and there are some knock-on behavioural changes too. 60% of our customers have said that since they started shopping with Unpackaged they do not buy over-packaged products in other shops.
Q: Why do you care?
A: I started the business because I, as a consumer, was fed up with the packaging that I felt that I was throwing away every time I went shopping. I was refilling Ecover cleaning products at my local organic shop but couldn’t understand why I couldn’t refill all my other groceries too – I felt that there had to be a better solution. I didn’t invent bulk selling but my innovation was to take an old solution, link it to our current environmental challenges and design and communicate it in a way that was attractive to mainstream customers – nearly 10 years ago when no one was doing it. The fact that there are 20+ shops in Europe that have all started in the last few years and are all or partly based on my model shows that it was a good innovation!
Q: Is being responsible good for business?
A: That’s hard to answer – Unpackaged only exists as a responsible business because we have a clear social mission. Whereas other businesses can sell their “widgets” either in a responsible or irresponsible way, if we changed anything about our model (i.e. compromise on the packaging) then people just wouldn’t come to us to refill. We help our consumers shop their values – this is what they believe in and we provide a solution to their ‘problem of packaging’. I believe if you set up a business that allows your customers to express their values when they buy from you, you’ll be successful.
Q: Has the business changed you?
A: I think I was always committed to a green lifestyle but yes, I am a total packaging bore – my boyfriend always feels like he’s always in trouble for bringing packaging into the house! I swing between feeling ok that I’m doing as much as I can within my community and then thinking that it’s far too small and will never be enough and we need macro solutions to the environmental problems we face and I’m just tinkering at the edges which will never be enough. I think that’s probably fairly common for activists though!
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: I love communicating the idea of Unpackaged to people – whether it’s with friends at a party, customers in retail or working with business people in larger companies. It’s about explaining the idea in a way that people with non-eco mindsets will understand and be inspired by. Everyone gets it, no-one is inherently bad and wants to leave a worse world to their children and grandchildren… we just need more businesses with a vision of how to do things differently and, more importantly, easier routes to market for people to test forward-looking ideas.
Q: Plans for the future?
A: Since closing the shop, Unpackaged has become more project based – launching innovative solutions in different areas (e.g. retail but also more ‘unseen’ supply chain work) and I think this is the direction of travel for us now. Testing new reuse ideas, refining them and getting them to market in a variety of arenas. Unpackaged is a mindset and a way of doing business, it can be adopted in any sector.