As zero-waste shopping gains momentum in Singapore, we can thank UnPackt for taking a leap and leading the revolution. Today, package-free shopping is fast, affordable and convenient in the Lion City.
I have such huge admiration for those who upheave a secure job and a cushy lifestyle to do something meaningful in their work because typically, it’s a huge and costly risk. But the betterment of this world, or in this case in Singapore, is thanks to people who take leaps like this, just as the founders of Singapore’s first zero-waste store did.
Meet Jeff Lam and Florence Tay of UnPackt, a homegrown social enterprise in Singapore with a mission to build a more green and mindful city, one community at a time. In the day to day, they are a zero-waste bulk store and they strive to bring a smart selection of food, products and daily necessities that ease the transition to a zero-waste lifestyle in Singapore.
Since they’re independent, they may not have the same purchasing power as major supermarkets or retail conglomerates so you won’t find aisles and aisles of imported ice cream and an endless selection of cheese from regions you’ve never heard of, but they have passion and by shopping with them you can be sure every item in the store is sustainably sourced. They handpick and select all their items according to their ethos of balancing quality and variety and encourage people to bring their own containers so that you are free from packaging waste. But best of all, by shopping at UnPackt you save on your grocery bill. Here’s the 101 on zero-waste shopping at UnPackt:
I read that you were both formerly business executives. What were those roles exactly?
Previously, my co-founder was in the distribution channel, in corporate gifts distribution, and for me, I was working in a charity organization. I was doing more of community awareness, so I worked with SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force) to raise awareness for sudden cardiac arrest.
What prompted that shift in career?
Initially, when we started up, we were looking at setting up a grocery store where people could bring their own containers and be able to purchase the full amount they eat because we felt that it’s more practical. This was because we know that packaging costs are definitely more expensive and also because my co-founder is based alone so most of the time he cannot finish his food so feels that it is actually a waste to have food thrown away.
So while we were setting up this business we actually stumbled across the term ‘zero-waste’ and we realized there were so many issues with package waste and food waste in Singapore. So we ended up actually positioning ourselves as a zero-waste grocery store. And we also hoped that by positioning ourselves as a zero-waste grocery store that we could also help drive community awareness towards the issues in Singapore because both of us felt that awareness level is a bit low and that something needed to be done.
In an Amazon-world with cheap and easy online shopping, some people might find the bulk shopping process a bit much. How do you combat this thinking?
Usually, we will explain to shoppers that especially for Asia where the weather is hot and humid oftentimes people don’t always finish the amount of food they purchase before it turns rancid or the spices are not fresh anymore. So, if people are paying for food that gets thrown away, why not pay for food that you actually consume? Also, when you shop in bulk and bring your own containers, you actually go through a process in your mind which results in buying less on impulse and you realize that you save more. You also end up actually spending less time decluttering your house so you can spend more quality time with your family and friends.
Was business hard to come by at first?
Initially, when we opened we were grateful that there was quite a bit of media coverage and we actually got a constant stream of customers coming in with the majority of them trying to figure out what zero-waste about and how to go about shopping.
In an effort to help other entrepreneurs looking to do more good in the world, based on your experience what kind of advice do you have when it comes to spreading the word, relaying your message and driving traffic to a new initiative?
I think first and foremost you need to do a risk assessment to find where your risks are and where your forte lies. At the same time, having perseverance and tenacity is good. They are good traits to have when you build a business because businesses are hard to maintain – easy to start but harder to maintain.
You have a unique hiring strategy. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
So in our case, we are actually a social enterprise. Where we hire single moms and elderly and give them fair employment as well as offering them training. We have them either at the back end where they produce some of our merchandise, and they also man our stores as well.
What are some of the more unique items that people might not know that they can stock up on at UnPackt?
Most people don’t know that you can actually purchase your shampoo, dishwashing liquid, hand-wash liquid, and other liquid items at our refill station. We also have honey, olive oil, and soy sauce. Liquid items are usually not very commonly known.
What are your three most favorite items in the store right now?
I see house and cleaning products that are moving very well, shampoo as well, actually we have customers coming in and telling us how much our shampoo is helping to reduce hair fall. And finally, we have the other one which is like a pocket portable food bag. It was very popular at Christmas, we actually have a lot coming back to repurchase as gifts for their families because they find that it’s very versatile as a pocket-sized lunch container.
Since opening, what are some of the trends you’ve noticed with respect to package-free shopping?
I think there has been an increasing number of package-free options in Singapore. There’s definitely a growing number of solutions, but I think they offer to different target markets.
We see different businesses promoting bring your own containers from buying food & beverages to snacks and refilleries.
Are prices REALLY lower than traditional grocery stores?
If you compare apple to apple, it really depends. I actually have one customer who bought two grams organic bay leaves for 70 cents and if I don’t recall wrongly, in the supermarket it cost about two dollars plus for non-organic bay leaves.
Although not all food items are hugely cheaper, like coffee beans are not much less but where we can we try to refund the cost savings to consumers to try and encourage them. They feel that it’s practical and they actually save a fair bit in the long run. But yes, some of the items may cost the same or just up to 5% cheaper (although not all food items are hugely cheaper, there is generally a cost savings of 5% or more depending on the purchase of our shoppers as there is a hidden cost of savings from unconsumed food).
In Asia, we’re still quite limited when it comes to options. What are some things you can recommend for people who don’t have access to zero-waste stores but want to reduce waste?
You can actually look into the wet market or the dry provision stores in Asia. We do have quite good traditional markets, where we can use containers and buy the majority of the items without packaging. On the other hand, you can also first think about whether you really need an item or not before you purchase it.
Incorporating more of a mindful food shopping process will also cut down waste by consumption. Also, before you throw an item away, responsible consumption is important to consider as well. Think about whether you will throw it away, if you will upcycle it, or if you should pass it to somebody else. Also if it’s even possible to recycle it properly. Most important, however, is binning your trash responsibly.
What are your personal #LittleGreenSteps that you think the average person can easily adapt?
I would usually first recommend that someone relook at their life as a first step – reflection is an important process because everyone’s lifestyle is different so I wouldn’t advocate bringing a reusable straw straight away. Maybe for one week, try identifying one of the items that you throw in the bin a lot and also what is comfortable for you to replace within your comfort zone. It may be things from the kitchen, let’s say after cooking you may realise that you are throwing away a lot of ziplock bags or cling wraps. You may try changing this and use reusables like silicone bags, silicone cling wraps or beeswax wrap.
Or you may look at your beauty and hygiene routine. We have a plastic-free razor, toothpaste, deodorants or reusable facial rounds which you can start replacing within your comfort zone at home.
What’s your process when it comes to sourcing products and developing relationships with suppliers?
For us, we try to support local as much as we can. For example, we know that there are other cheaper alternatives like importing maybe Australian soaps but we try to work with a local soap maker and hope that we can build the local craft scene that way. It also reduces the carbon footprint and gives respect to the local economy. Of course, it’s better for the environment as well.
For food items, we actually work directly with the importer; so we tap in on them when they are importing items so we can also reduce our carbon footprint as compared to importing directly on our own. We also try as much possible to reduce the packaging by trying to aim for a circular economy where containers can be refilled or larger bulk packaging. We always ask for plastic-free options where possible. We are also glad to have convinced the local suppliers to look at reducing packaging waste and supplying to us in bulk.
What’s been your proudest moment?
The happiest moment actually was when people came in and saw it for the first time. They thought it was weird that we started it but then resonate that it was practical to reduce packaging and food waste. We are happy to have grown UnPackt’s selection with our customers’ support and their kind words when they walk in and exclaim, “There’s another new product! ” It makes us feel very encouraged and to work even harder to find more products for our shoppers while working on the community awareness in Singapore.
What’s your five-year plan?
We hope that in five years time, we can convince more consumers to switch to shopping sustainably by shopping with UnPackt, or other bulk stores or even in their neighborhood’s provision stores and wet markets. We feel that the big picture out there is the sustainability and that environmental awareness that need to be worked on.