How to start a zero waste store

How To Start A Zero-Waste Store

Have you ever left your local supermarket or grocery store frustrated because you couldn't find food in bulk or zero-waste products? Then, you understand the challenge many eco-conscious individuals go through daily. If you are interested in that line of entrepreneurship, you can start your own zero-waste grocery store, which we also call a refill shop.

It might seem daunting initially, but starting a zero-waste store is not as hard as you’d imagine. This article shares everything you need to know to get started.

What are zero-waste stores?

Photo by Sarah Chai

Zero waste stores sell sustainable products in sustainable ways. They sell food or zero-waste products in bulk bins or refills to eliminate packaging and food waste. Customers usually have to bring their own bags and reusable containers to carry their groceries. They may also borrow or rent reusable containers from the zero-waste store.

Europe, a small part of the world, produces over 63 million tons of packaging waste, and the U.S. generates 133 billion pounds of food waste annually (read more food waste facts here). Zero-waste shops are one of the many solutions to the waste predicament.

Your zero-waste shop will make eco-friendly shopping easier for the people in your local community. It is also a great way to turn eco-anxiety into something positive.

The idea of a zero-waste store may work for you because you have or want to own a company. However, you can still implement ideas for a zero-waste company. Zero-waste companies source ethical materials, use low-waste production systems, use clean energy, cut down on paper, etc. 

Are zero-waste stores profitable?

With so many big companies making cheap and fast products, there is no denying the competition. However, as more people become aware of climate change and their role in it, eco-friendly, sustainable business ideas are gaining more traction and customers.

So yes, opening a zero-waste store can make for a profitable business. However, like any other business, nothing is guaranteed. You’ll need an entrepreneurial mindset, finance management, marketing, and customer service skills. You can learn any skill you lack or employ someone to complement your own. 

To address the issue of the relative expensiveness of eco-friendly goods, educate prospects on the environmental and health benefits. As well as the durability, packaging waste elimination, and other long-term savings they would benefit from. 

Some zero-waste goods like bamboo toothbrushes or Ziploc bag alternatives can be very affordable. Still, it is also important not to capitalize on the rarity of zero-waste stores and try to over-profit. It could push customers to find cheaper, non-eco-friendly alternatives or lose trust in your business. 

Financing your zero waste store business

Typically, people finance small businesses like a neighborhood zero waste store with their savings and/or friends and family investments. Small businesses may also access loans or win grants dedicated to supporting startups and environmentally friendly ventures.

There are other ways to get capital to open a zero-waste shop. You can source investors from your professional and personal networks. They can share profits and risks with you. You could also crowdfund your zero-waste store as well.

Crowdfunding could give you free marketing and connect you to an already interested customer base.

Steps to opening a zero-waste store

Zero waste store layout
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

If you can’t stop thinking about how great it would be to have a zero-waste store in your community, maybe it's time to fill the gap and set up your own zero-waste store. However, you need to be sure it is something you want to do long-term and not just a phase. 

Below are the steps you'll take from inspiration to reality.

1. Brainstorming and market research

Businesses thrive when they fill an identified need of a target audience. To best understand your audience's needs, think deeply, research, and ask questions to identify the kinds of products the people you will serve might value. It could be bulk food items like nuts, grains, and beans or home goods like mason jars, beeswax wraps, reusable straws, zero-waste cleaning products, etc.

Talk to people around town to find out how they feel about a local zero-waste store. Read our guide to zero-waste grocery shopping for some of the things people might be thinking about and looking for in your store. 

Try to measure the market demand and identify your competitors and possible business threats. You should also understand what resources are available to you and how they can play into your business's success.

2. Choose the right location

Many considerations can help you determine the ideal location for your refill store. Is the location easy to reach? Does it connect to a major road with high traffic? Are there opening hours restrictions unique to the location? Is it secure?

The location should have a parking space if it's in a commercial district with residential homes far away. A zero-waste shop located in a neighborhood community with customers within walking distance may not need a parking lot, and encouraging people to walk in rather than drive their cars will fit with your eco-friendly ethos. 

Choose a retail space with possibilities of eco-friendly and energy-saving add-ons and renovations.

3. Create a business plan document

A plan helps you to have a clear vision of the idea you have in mind. It also allows you to identify and list your business's total costs and determine which local permits you'll need. It also enables you to plan your next steps clearly.

A business plan document is essential if you want to work with investors or get a business loan. You can create the plan yourself or hire an expert to help you create a standard document.

4. Partner with local suppliers

Bulk seasoning goods
Photo by Laura Mitulla on Unsplash

If you ask around, you will surely find suppliers of eco-friendly goods in your local area. There would be craftspeople who make all kinds of zero-waste hand soaps, candles, wooden utensils, etc. Some farmers can supply you with bulk fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, dairy, etc. 

You can even create a partnership with gardeners growing more than they can consume. Sourcing locally helps to improve the local economy and promote sustainable businesses. It also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions along your supply chain.

Work with the best ethical manufacturers you can find for products you can’t find in your community. Finding trustworthy suppliers, locally or elsewhere, is a lot of work. You should start identifying potential suppliers as soon as you start planning to open a zero-waste store. 

5. Set up your shop

Once you have decided on the space you want and paid for it, it's time to set it up. This is the fun part, and it is really important as the appearance of your zero-waste store can influence its popularity. You need a set-up in which customers can shop conveniently.

You could work with an interior designer with experience in sustainable construction. Liquid dispensers, bulk bins, display cases, shelves, mason jars, bulk storage units, etc., are some things you'll need to invest in or craft yourself. 

You may also consider selling online at launch or a little later. Signing up for a service like Shopify or on a marketplace like Etsy makes it easy for you to do so. However, be mindful that you’ll also need to work to ensure that your store gets noticed and has the systems in place for online delivery.

Either way, go for eco-friendly packaging in the store and online orders, or none for customers who bring their own bags, which is even better!

6. Get help

A full-time employee may not be something you'll need after opening a zero-waste shop. But as your business grows, you will likely need more help. You can hire part-time help and outsource duties like accounting and taxation to professionals.

It is important to train your staff correctly. Ensure they know how to operate store equipment and attend to customers in line with your desired brand image. The ideal employee is passionate about sustainability, has in-depth knowledge of zero-waste products, and can answer customers’ questions.

7. Launch your zero-waste store

Once you have completed all the steps listed above, it's time for the most exciting part: opening the doors of your zero-waste store to the public. A special launch day allows people to visit your shop and browse without pressure to buy. It lets them get familiar with you and your refill store.

Schedule a launch day with special activities like games for souvenirs, special discounts, etc. It is important to tell as many people as possible about your launch day; your friends and family can help. You can also put up posters or circulate e-flyers.

Launch days can get very hectic; get friends or hire people to help you set up, attend to visitors, and clean up.

How to ensure a zero waste store doesn’t forget its values

Zero-waste stores mustn't lose focus while trying to impress customers and beat competitors. Here are some tips to keep your zero-waste store truly waste-free.

Don’t overstock

When the capital is readily available, it might be tempting to stock excessive inventory. But perishables could spoil or expire, and no-perishables could go out of style, leaving you with waste and unwanted stock.

Stock ugly produce

Many farm produce never reach supermarket aisles because they are not shaped or colored perfectly. Give so-called ugly food a chance in your store so they don't waste away.

Pass on excess stock

Sometimes, a particular product doesn't sell as well as expected, leaving you with surplus expiring goods. You can connect with other businesses in your community that can buy these goods for production or resale.

Stay paper free

Although receipts are important, paper receipts get thrown away in minutes. You shouldn’t contribute to such mindless waste; opt for e-receipts instead. You can also use electronic flyers, business cards, and coupons. There are a lot of apps for that.

And if you do opt for a little paper promotion, go for eco-friendly business cards on the counter or to hand out. They're small, recycled, and compostable.

Low-cost marketing advice for your zero-waste store

You don't need a lot of money to market your zero-waste store. You can leverage social media or set up a website. You can build a basic website with Shopify or Google Sites at a very low cost. Sign up too for a Google My Business account, which will help you attract more customers and provide helpful information about your business, which they display in the search results and alongside listings in Google Maps. 

Consider using e-flyers, too. You don't have to reprint them; they can be easily circulated with just a few button clicks.

Conclusion

Zero-waste shops make the eco-friendly lifestyle more accessible and reduce the environmental costs of grocery shopping. Opening a zero-waste store from the ground up may seem challenging, but it is worth it.

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Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Anna Oliinyk on Unsplash
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