The Affordability of Plastic-Free Shopping

The Affordability of Plastic-Free Shopping

It’s Plastic-Free July once again, so it seems like a good time to get writing on here again. For those who don’t know, Plastic Free July is a global movement that helps millions of people become part of the solution to plastic pollution. You can sign up to their challenge here: and their website is a goldmine of information for offices/schools/businesses/individuals looking to reduce their impact.

It feels like this year, we are really starting to get to grips with the enormity of some of the challenges we face. Of course, plastic pollution is only a small part of the overall picture, but it’s a good a place as any to start thinking about our impact on our environment.

I decided to write this because as “low-waste”, “plastic-free” and “ethical” shops proliferate up and down the country, there has inevitably been a lot of talk about cost, affordability and privilege. And rightly so. These are important topics and certainly not ones I can pick apart in a single blog post.  Needless to say, of course there is a huge amount of privilege involved in the way we shop, and the choices we feel we can make in terms of our waste reduction. But more on this another time.

For now, it’s the affordability concept in particular I want to pick up on. And the first thing to say is that really, there is no such thing as affordable. What is affordable for one person is absolutely not for another. If the last year of starting a business in which I do not earn much money has taught me, it’s how sticky and tangled up the issue of money is. Affordability is relative.

There has recently been a lot of talk in mainstream media about waste, which is fantastic. Hugh Fearnely Whittingstall’s “War on Plastic” has helped shake things up again and made us reconsider our shopping habits.

  The trail-blazing zero-waste supermarket The Clean Kilo in Birmingham was featured on “Eat Well for Less” last week.  The Guardian recently ran this article which provoked a lengthy debate over social media about the prices of low waste shops.

As is only natural, a lot of the talk around “affordability” of low waste shopping has taken the form of comparing the cost of smaller low- waste shops to supermarkets. Therein lies the problem. These are often completely different business models and to pit them against each other is not entirely fair. Or even necessary.  Surely there is room for both in our everyday shopping routines?

There is also a  lot of focus on supermarkets needing to lead the change. Of course they have the biggest voices and heaviest political sway, but it seems more that supermarkets need to follow the lead of the independent businesses and fed-up consumers who are already leading the change.  There are now hundreds of low-waste shops up and down the country run by passionate people who’s ethics extend beyond having one plastic free aisle, or swapping plastic bags for paper ones. The smaller shops are massively up against it in terms of buying power, resources and time because, well, capitalism, but have set up anyway.

Supermarkets do have a hugely important part to play, but I’m wary of  new policies that are tokenistic at best, and greenwashing at worst. Is Morrisons’ policy of swapping all it’s plastic bags for paper ones that great? Considering they have 491 stores up and down the country, I’d say that’s an awful lot of trees. I visited the Bolton branch yesterday and just wanted a drink of juice whilst sitting in the cafe. I was told it was impossible to have one in a glass, it had to be plastic lined cup as they didn’t want glass “contaminating the kitchen area”. I don’t even know where to start with that.

Yes, small good things and changes are great. But that’s not to say bohemoth companies should get let off the hook with small scale policies that greenwash and gloss over the larger scale improvements that need to be made. (A top of my head list would be proper payment of farmers, less focus on aesthetics of produce, more focus on food that doesn’t strip the land of nutrients, better systems for waste prevention, more in-house recycling, bottle return schemes, better employment conditions for workers, banning Morrissons FM or whatever the f*ck it is they have on. I’ll leave it there)

But anyway, I digress. Back to the affordability issue. I am absolutely not here to tell you what you can or can’t afford. But, what I do know is that if you would really like to reduce your plastic waste, there are ways of shopping with the smaller businesses that don’t cost the earth*. It just requires a bit of a mindset-shift. Do I think you should run round from shop to shop simply to find “plastic-free” goods? Erm, no. Life is short and precious. But, as ever, I totally believe that we can make some small changes to our regular shopping habits.

When thinking about how to reduce the cost of “plastic-free” shopping, these are some of the examples that sprung to mind:

  1. Shop seasonally. We focus on UK produce, followed by European produce for what we stock. This makes things cheaper for the customer, and has the added benefit of being better for our health as it diversifies our diet. Local greengrocers very often have unwrapped fruit and veg making it extra-easy to avoid plastic waste. Just sayin’.
  2. We, and many other shops have a downloadable price list, so you can check before you shop. Despite my protestations about comparisons to supermarkets I do get curious as to how our prices compare. So, many of the prices have actually been checked against Morries and Tesco and we are very often cheaper.
  3. Buy only what you need. Low waste shops make this easier by not pre-packing all your goods for you. If you want to come to us and buy a solitary potato, then that is fine. In our shop you won’t find any 2 for 1 gimmicks or brightly coloured packages to try and make you buy things you don’t need. It’s one of my favourite things about it.
  4. Meal plan. It’s not for everyone, and god bless you spontaneous souls, but I do love a good meal plan. What is particularly nice is that some of our customers use our produce list to meal plan from, rather that meal planning and then coming to find we don’t have everything they need. This is a great way to do it, and a great way to support the smaller shops who definitely won’t have everything we are so used to buying in a supermarket.
  5. Go easy on yourself. Life is busy, we are all trying. If you end up having to make a bajillion different trips to source things “plastic-free” then something isn’t right. Change what you can, and come back to the rest.

I would really love to know your thoughts on all this, and if you are taking part in the Plastic Free July challenge, it would be great to hear about any changes you have made, or things you have found tricky.

*These suggestions also apply if you shop at supermarkets. I absolutely think there is a place for supermarkets- I still have to shop in them- but for the purposes of this blog I wanted to highlight what independent shops can offer.

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