A (More) Sustainable Grocery Model

31 Mar

Americans love to consume, as you well know, and that means we have become a rather ‘trashy’ nation. We buy and throw away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “stuff” every year, and only a tiny fraction of it is recycled. I’ll spare you the details, but for whatever reason, it has been embedded in our culture that we must buy and throw away as much as possible.

One of the biggest sources of our trash is the grocery store. Every week, we trek back and forth to our neighborhood grocer to buy boxes of boxes-within-boxes (which, are often individually sealed!), and then put them in our plastic bags to take home. It’s safe to say that only a tiny fraction is recycled- most goes right into the trash. What if you could eliminate 50% of packaging- and therefore consumer trash- at a grocery store?

I was inspired a few months ago when I read about a wine refilling vending machine at supermarkets in France, especially after reading about how energy-intensive the production process is for glass wine bottles. What if you built a grocery store model around the idea that socially-minded consumers would bring their own bags, containers, and bottles and pay by weight and volume?

I was managing a gourmet wine and cheese shop in Washington DC when the city council levied a $.05 bag tax. I was amazed to see how 5 cents changed consumer behavior- customers had no problem forking over $7 for a chocolate bar and $10 for bacon, but a nickel for a bag? That’s an outrage! Literally overnight, I saw consumers shift from relying on us for bags, to them bringing their own bags; the trendier consumers even found some really cool, well-designed reusable bags that could fold up into their pockets. But I digress. The point is, I witnessed consumers not only bringing their own bags, but also subscribing to a “return” system with milk bottles; an up-front deposit was paid for a glass milk bottle, and a discount was applied to each successive bottle when they returned their empties. (This not only encouraged recycling, but also returned trips on the customer’s behalf)

There are many cases where consumers have shown they are willing to bring their own bags, and many where consumers bring their own containers (growler refills, farmers markets, etc). I would imagine that a chain of small, urban-centric grocery stores built around this model would be successful. There is a limit to the foods that you can “de-package”, however, but this business would cater to a crowd that is happy to settle for fewer choices in exchange for the green factor. There would also be a huge local element involved, as produce and flexible producers would be more accommodating; I can’t imagine that General Mills would sell its cereal in bulk with the intention that it would be purchased in volume rather than by individual package, but a local cereal producer, such as Michele’s Granola, might.

You could imagine that the grocery chain, let’s call it GreenGrocer (needs some branding work, I admit), would sell branded shopping bags and containers. The GreenGrocer consumer would arrive at the store with his own bag, filled with GreenGrocer containers that he would then proceed to fill with his groceries. When he checks out, instead of scanning every UPC code, the person at the checkout counter would ring the customer up based on the weight or volume of his groceries.

There are, admittedly, a lot of problems- ‘hurdles’, I should say- with this model. First of all, the range of goods that could be sold by weight and volume is fairly limited, and excludes virtually any processed food product (which actually would be a selling point rather than a hurdle). Second, finding reliable suppliers that can provide the scale demanded by this model would be difficult. Third, the products that best lend themselves to this model are the ones that are the most perishable- fruits and veggies, breads, milk, etc.

I would like to take a closer look at the grocery industry, particularly in and around dense urban centers. Sure rents are high, but with margins between 40-100%, there is a niche that GreenGrocers could cleanly fill: environmentally friendly, locally sourced, sustainable, 100% natural groceries. Did you hear that Mr. Gore? Now accepting investors!


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