Zero waste shops – part of the solution…or part of the problem?

During the UK’s second lockdown, many zero waste shops remain open across Surrey, offering ethically sourced and reusable items you might usually buy in the supermarket, and providing refills of environmentally friendly household products and dry food.  

I actually have a favourite zero waste shop and I go there as often as I can. It is super-organised with a brilliant system for weighing containers, and attractive little stainless-steel funnels to keep dribbling to a minimum. The staff are also very friendly and the whole shopping experience is lovely.  

I am exactly the sort of person who would have a favourite zero waste shop – it goes with the dangly earrings and the vegan husband, and the fact that I’ve shopped in enough zero waste shops over the years to be able to make a reasoned judgement about them. But I also know that I am not representative, and that for most people, a zero waste shop doesn’t play a regular part in their lives. Even with COVID-19 driving the rise of corner shops, the majority of people still shop at supermarkets, whether in person or online. This is because people have busy lives – asking them to ditch the weekly shop and divide their essential shopping across a range of independent outlets isn’t a realistic request. 

But we are also battling against environmentally unfriendly practices, and we need a solution. 

I feel that if we are going to encourage people to live more lightly on the earth, the message has to go mainstream. The dangly-earring brigade converted years ago, when carrier bags were still “free” and David Attenborough had not yet made Blue Planet II. And do you know what? A handful of well-meaning hippies getting washing-up liquid refills didn’t change the world. If we had, carrier bags would still be free now. 

On the other hand, there have been two significant changes off the back of the government’s 5p carrier bag charge, which, you may remember, only applies to shops with more than 250 employees, i.e. supermarkets. The first is that carrier bag sales dropped by 86% between 2015 and 2018. The second is that the reduction in the amount of carrier bag waste on the sea floor is noticeable, as reported by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

These two significant changes indicate that supermarkets, not independents, are the businesses that have the power to fight climate change.

Why is this? We are all told to “buy local” and support small businesses or there’ll be nothing left but no-choice chain stores. In general, I support this principle. But when it comes to making a positive environmental difference, small businesses are too small to make the difference the planet needs. 

Another problem with zero waste shops is that they are often perceived as being the preserve of hippies and the middle class. However, most zero waste shops are understandably proud of their independence and don’t want to enter the mainstream, and expansion could undermine their ethos. 

At the other end of the shopping scale, supermarkets have already made a difference to plastic bag waste and are now supporting other greener choices, like reducing plastic packaging and offering eco-friendly alternatives to regular products. It’s just as easy to toss a “green” brand of cleaner into your real or virtual trolley as it was with whatever harmful old product you used to buy. By making low-impact products easily available on the weekly shop, we can start to convert a much larger slice of the population. 

I don’t know if we can ever reverse the damage we have done to our planet, but I hope we can slow it down. The massed power of supermarket shoppers could be the answer.