Buying products with less packaging is a goal for many consumers. Using refillable products is one way of significantly reducing waste. Refilling is essentially source reduction. Refill stores help us to reuse containers and bottles reducing the amount of packaging.
Zero Waste Canada recently visited Leanne Gallagher Allen owner of West Coast Refill in Victoria BC. Leanne who has been active in Victoria’s Zero Waste community opened her little shop in the city’s historic Chinatown in the summer.
Stores like West Coast Refill are helping to change the standards of consumerism by offering the alternative of “Refill not landfill”.
Here is our latest interview with a small business that is helping us reduce our impact as consumers.
What was your inspiration to open a retail shop in Victoria specializing in refillable products?
I have always been very environmentally conscious. I have been making natural soaps, lotions, house hold cleaners and more for almost twenty years. More recently my husband and I have been intentionally reducing the amount of waste we create as a household and I have been diving deeper in reading and studying Minimalism and Zero Waste lifestyles. At home we grow a lot of our own food, compost everything, collect rain water and more, to the point we were able to cancel our monthly garbage and kitchen scraps pick up over two years ago.
At the same time when it came to needing the ingredients to make more cleaning products, there was very little I could find in bulk or package free. The “all natural” ingredients I needed such as beeswax or citric acid powder were only available in multi-layer plastic bags and in pre-set amounts of 500 grams or more, when all I really needed was two tablespoons. I was growing frustrated trying to reuse and refill bottles and having to visit four or five different shops to find what I needed and then being told they would only refill their own original bottle with their brand or logo on it with the identical product. I realized if I wanted to be more than just a “drop in the bucket” and see real change I had to encourage others and if I made it very easy and convenient for them to avoid single use plastics and allow them to refill any clean empty bottle and save money in the process then maybe we could encourage enough people that together we could be more like a proper wave of change instead of just a drop in the bucket.
Leanne, what is your background and how did your experiences in your past employment influence your choice to open a refill store?
I have had many jobs in my life. Everything from running the mail order and retail store front of a botanicals shop, to managing chiropractic offices, to many years managing corporate coffee shops followed by freelance community events and marketing coordination while running my own house keeping business focused on all natural and waste free house cleaning. I’ve always been interested in natural health, in sustainability and natural living. I am naturally a very hands on person and a clean freak to top it all off. Unfortunately I got trapped into the corporate hamster wheel of depending on a steady pay cheque and medical/dental benefits that come with it. As frustrating as it was for me to be working in that environment I learned a lot about managing staff, profit and loss, brand recognition and more.
What kind of research did you do before opening the store?
I borrowed many books from the library on starting a retail business, green businesses, environmental issue, green marketing etc. I searched Google for every article I could find about Zero Waste and Refill Shops opening across Europe and Australia. At some point I discovered that Vancouver was home to the Soap Dispensary and I started reading every interview or article featuring Linh Truong, the owner. I joined several on line Zero Waste groups and even started my own group on Facebook called Zero Waste Living Victoria BC when I couldn’t find anything local and started a group on meetup.com. I asked questions to the group members about what sort of non-food items they had the most difficulty finding package free to get a sense of what the best items would be to carry in the store.
How effective has social media been to promote your shop?
Social Media has been absolutely key in promoting my shop. It is the modern “word of mouth” in a word where people don’t get to see as many friends and relatives face to face as they did a generation ago. Before the shop was open I was able to connect with people on Facebook like Buddy and Barb of Zero Waste Canada and Paula and Nairn of The Burlap Shoe. Instagram has allowed me to connect with various Zero Waste bloggers and writers, some of whom have made a point of coming to visit my shop in person such as @_wastelandrebel_, @50shadesofgreentoronto, @mindfully.sustainable who have helped to grow my following when they have shared photos of the store. The small post by Victoria Buzz’s Facebook page got over 600 shares and drew the attention of CBC Radio and Check News who visited the shop to do interviews with me.
Were there any health code issues for dispensing products that you had to work through?
I am not licensed to sell anything in my shop as a food item. I specifically focus on bulk body care and home cleaning items and very openly explain to customers that the “raw components” I carry such as baking soda, citric acid power or dried rose petals, are not intended for consumption. Instead they are intended to be ingredients for do-it-yourself body care products like lotions or bath bombs.
Before I opened I contacted the Vancouver Island Health Authority and asked what sort of regulations I would need to follow and the people I spoke to were incredibly confused by what I was doing. Because of my very small space I do not have room for a three compartment sink or commercial dishwasher to sanitize the glass jars and scoops to meet food safe regulations.
Did you find any problem finding suppliers of products that could be sold in a refillable or bulk model?
No, not at all. Since I focused on Canadian made brands that use natural ingredients and themselves have strong environmental commitments, they have been very supportive of their products being sold in bulk. These companies understand that the ingredients and performance of their product is what they want to share with the world, not how pretty their single use plastic bottle is or how great their logo looks on it. As “small manufacturers” they understand it is in their own best interest to offer their products in bulk as it save their company the cost of the individual packaging and labour of filling each bottle, while reducing their own environmental impact.
What has been the response of the community to West Coast Refill?
I have only had positive comments so far! I get a lot of people who just happen to wander in telling me how beautiful my shop is and what a great idea it is and how refilling bottles “just makes sense” or that we should have refill shops everywhere. What really surprised me was how many people have made a point of actually thanking me for opening the shop!
Do most of your customers bring shopping bags and containers for refill?
People who come in specifically because they have heard of me before almost always have bottles or jars and reusable shopping bags with them. People who come in because they were walking by and my window caught their eye are not usually as prepared, but they will often buy one of the glass bottles I sell. I don’t make a point of asking people if they need a bag. The few who ask me for one are pretty much always American tourists. European tourists usually have a shoulder bag or some other bag with them. Locals living or working in the area usually tell me they don’t have far to go and don’t need a bag.
Many people have never shopped for products from dispensers; is there any information or changes in behaviour needed for shoppers?
The most difficult concept for people new to shopping in bulk is weight verse volume of liquids. I often will get asked “how much will it cost to fill this bottle with XX?”. I will explain to them that liquids weight differently depending their thickness and ingredients. If I still get a blank stare I will suggest to them that I fill the bottle half way, put it on the scale and tell them what the price is and they can decide if they want to add more or not. I think we have been pre-conditioned to see a package on the shelf and the price being fixed, where as in bulk people need to get used to having to visualize how much of an item they will be getting and do a little mental math, and it can be intimidating for some.
The other question is “do you offer samples?” to which I reply, my focus is to eliminate single use packaging, so if you’d like to bring in a bottle I can add just a tiny amount for you to try or you can purchase enough for a few applications without being committed to a full bottle the way you might if you bought your shampoo or lotion at a drug store or salon. Bulk gives you a lot of options that pre-packaged purchases don’t.
So far what has been the most popular product you offer?
The Sapadilla dish soap and laundry soap are very popular, partly because they smell amazing and partly because they are super concentrated so a little goes a very long way and you really get your money’s worth. I was surprised at how excited people get to see the Witch Hazel in bulk and I have sold through quite a bit of it. The Abeego reusable food wraps are very popular with the tourists. I think they like the idea that it is made here in Victoria, it’s like a very functional and eco-friendly souvenir, and they don’t have to worry about carrying it on the plane they way they do with liquids.
A criticism that is sometimes heard of new “Zero Waste” stores is the amount or types of packaging from suppliers, how do you work with suppliers to reduce packaging or to make sure packaging is recyclable?
When possible, I will arrange to pick up items from the supplier myself, instead of having them shipped or couriered to avoid the excess boxes, tape and potential bubble wrap. Every once in a while my husband and I will go to Vancouver with our vehicle and hit up as many suppliers as we can in one trip. This saves the extra packaging and shipping costs of ordering from multiple locations and it allows us to return empty jugs and buckets to the manufacturers who are usually able to refill them again. For items that have to be shipped, I always ask the supplier to send them with as little plastic and packaging as possible. I’ve only had one place send something with styrofoam packing peanuts which I was able to take to the recycle depot and I wrote to them about it. The next order I received from that company used the type of packing peanuts that are made from potato starch and dissolve in hot water. Every box or bit of paper that comes into the shop gets reused, repurposed, and recycled as a last resort. In fact I now have neighbouring offices that will come and check with me to see if I have any boxes or extra packing paper they can use if they have to ship something out.
As a retail shop, how are you reducing waste from your establishment?
From the moment we first got the keys to the space we did our best to create as little waste as possible. The sales counter, the display table and benches that hold product were all built by my husband Chris out of reclaimed and salvaged wood. I bought things second-hand whenever possible, like our display case and cash drawer. The only thing bought new was the one wall shelf. There is no trash can in the shop. If I bring an apple or orange to work for lunch I take the core or peel back home to be composted. I use actual cloth towels in the restroom instead of paper towel and I keep a stack of cloths and tea towels in the shop for cleaning up any spills that may occur and just take them home to launder at the end of the week. We don’t print receipts at all to reduce paper consumption. Instead customers have their receipts sent to them by email. We even managed to set up the debt credit machine so that it only prints the merchant copy of the transaction receipt instead of one for the customer as well.
We have a large pickle jar that holds any trash I wasn’t able to recycle, such as the extra strip trimmed off the window lights, a few foam safety seals off jugs and other bits of plastic things I haven’t figured out how to recycle. So far it is less than two pounds of actual landfill trash in four months since we took over the space.
What are your dreams for West Coast Refill?
I have so many ideas of where I’d like to see this company go! I would love to have a larger space where I can host larger workshops or documentary nights, bring in different speakers on various sustainability topics, hold more product selection and possibly start carrying bulk food products. For me, having the business involved in the community is very important. I also had a thought that maybe several small locations throughout various communities would make it more convenient for people to shop this way on a regular basis. We have even discussed the viability of a home delivery service. It all depends on if we are successful enough in this tiny space hidden away in Dragon Alley to actually expand one way or another.
Do you think entrepreneurs can be leaders in the environmental movement?
Absolutely! I think we will see more positive momentum in the environmental movement the more we can prove that focusing on green energy, green products and sustainability is economically sound. Entrepreneurs are more often than not people who are willing to try doing things in a new or different way. If we are going to change society from supporting individually packaged, chemically laden, fossil fuelled products that have been mass produced by giant corporations where the bottom line is the only important factor, then we need more inventors, more small manufacturers and more diverse businesses to pave the way and prove it can be done and done successfully.
How do you think you can help to educate consumers to adopt a Zero Waste lifestyle?
I am hoping to educate consumers primarily by showing them how easy it actually is to live without waste and how much time and money they can save by not purchasing a product in a plastic container every time they run out of something. Daily conversations in the shop and outside of it, social media and print to keep driving home the point, networking in the community will all contribute to this as well. I will soon be hosting a few workshops in my little space, and if I am able, I will be hosting some speakers and workshops in other larger venues as well that will cover everything from composting to making your own beauty products to avoiding waste during holidays and celebrations.
What are the benefits to using products that you can buy at West Coast Refill?
Aside from the fact that the products we carry work really well, smell amazing and will save you money, there is a much wider ripple effect people don’t realize they contribute to by choosing to buy bulk from a local small business instead of supporting a large corporation that mass produces products and uses synthetic ingredients. Buying products made in Canada means jobs are being created in Canada, working conditions and labour laws are being met and the profits stay local as opposed to going into a corporate shareholder’s pocket in a different country. When a person chooses to use a biodegradable, plant based cleaning product or body care product they are choosing to support sustainable ingredients. By choosing to refill their own clean, empty bottles or containers, they are keeping that many single use plastic containers out of the landfill or the inefficient recycling system. It also means plastic packages doesn’t to be replaced with more newly produced plastic, which means more fossil fuels need to be extracted to produce it an so on and so on. The same is true if a person chooses to buy a reusable glass straw or beeswax food wrap from us as opposed to a single use plastic straw or plastic food wrap. It is the epitome of “vote with your dollar”.