The amount of plastic packaging used to protect and preserve food and groceries became a very contentious and high-profile topic in 2018.
Companies have been working for a long time on developing more sustainable packaging solutions. However, it is an extremely complex and challenging issue.
Even so, I continue to see more and more industry activity, public campaigns and regulation on this topic.
Back to the future
One way that environmentally conscious retailers have been addressing the issues associated with excess packaging is to take inspiration from the past.
Traditionally, pre-1920s, we would have purchased produce from our local greengrocers, and they would have wrapped and packed the goods up for us.
Currently, there is a movement of niche independent retailers that are offering products in a similar way to the pre-1920s greengrocers.
The goods are unpacked, and the movement is called ‘zero waste’ stores.
The difference today is that instead of the shopkeeper packing up your goods for you, shoppers are encouraged to bring in their own containers to the store to pack the products they want.
In April 2018, Ekoplaza launched the world’s first plastic-free pop-up store in Amsterdam. 700 SKUs are packaged in plant-based compostable biofilm or displayed packaging-free. The retailer also introduced a plastic-free aisle in-store, and plans to roll out the initiative across its network.
Singapore’s first zero-waste grocery store, called Unpackt, opened in May 2018 with the aim of making packaging-free shopping more accessible. Customers can buy goods without any packaging and are encouraged to bring their own containers to store.
At the end of 2018, Thornton's Budgens store in Camden switched more than 1,700 product lines to plastic-free packaging, with the aim of becoming "virtually plastic-free" within three years. By January 29th, 2019, the store had 1,897 plastic-free products.
Across Europe it’s a similar story with independent stores in Barcelona, Milan, Vienna, Antwerp, Turin, Verona, Utrecht and many more. These types of stores have also started to open in North America and Asia.
The Zero Waste movement has been gathering momentum. Of course, this movement is just one strand of a larger consumer trend that we’ve all been watching unfold for years. That is, the rising expectations for brands and businesses to do more to minimise the negative impact they have on the planet and society.
From niche to mainstream
However, this movement is moving from niche to mainstream. We have seen a number of established retailers offering products that are unpacked, from the likes of Whole Foods who provide bulk offering at its stores.
Albert Heijn has introduced instore ‘harvest stands or living walls’. This isn’t the first time Albert Heijn has trialled instore fresh ‘living’ produce, and I have seen similar initiatives being tested in Asia and from Metro in Germany.
Most recently, in January 2019, Marks & Spencer stepped-up its commitment to reducing the amount of plastic it uses by launching over 90 lines of loose fruit and vegetables completely free of plastic packaging in a trial at its Tolworth store in the UK.
To support the trial, M&S has introduced trained greengrocers, who will be on hand to offer customers valuable advice as they select from two aisles of fruit and vegetables free of plastic packaging.
In addition to helping customers pick and weigh their products, the greengrocers will provide tips on how best to preserve fresh produce and prevent food waste at home, as M&S has removed “best before” date labels from fresh fruit and veg as part of the store trial.
The results are in…
It is still relatively early to tell how successful the naked food movement has been. But from initial feedback the naked food movement is proving both commercial and environmentally successful.
According to Andrew Thornton, of Thornton's Budgens in Camden: “Our plastic free campaign has been highly effective in making a difference in the world. And, it’s grown our sales line by 4%, no mean achievement in the UK grocery market!".
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the group A Plastic Planet, which is working with the supermarket, said: "In just 10 weeks the store has removed plastic packaging from more than 1,500 products, finally giving their customers the choice they want."
In New Zealand, a group of New World supermarkets have abandoned the use of plastic wrapping for virtually all fruit and vegetables in a project labelled 'food in the nude'. According to The New Zealand Herald, sales of some vegetables have soared by up to 300%.
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Toby Pickard, Head of Insight – Innovation and Futures
I head up IGD’s insights research on innovations and futures, and analyse the impact they could have on retailers, suppliers and shoppers. I regularly work with leading retailers and manufacturers to create content and insights focusing on the future of retail.
Please contact me: [email protected]