Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

in.gredients_lrg_logo

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