How successful will the refillable shopping model be?
I’ve been following the story of the Waitrose ‘plastic free’ experiment in Oxford where consumers bring their own cartons for refills of loose goods such as pasta, rice or cereal. Certainly this BBC article speaks to numerous consumers who have embraced the idea. But the killer question is (as always): will it scale?
Surveys have long suggested that about 15% of the population is willing to sacrifice cost or convenience for Sustainability. My gut instinct is that Waitrose customers in Oxford are likely to fit that 15% demographic, but what about, say, discount supermarket customers in an area of deprivation? Are they going to load up the car with bags of tupperware every week to stock up on their cornflakes?
My basic principle is that, to appeal to the mainstream as well as the green niche, sustainable options must be more attractive than business as usual – that can be on cost grounds or convenience. Waitrose’s 15% discount on loose purchases may inspire some, but the initial outlay on reusable storage and the hassle will put off others.
The 5p plastic bag tax has had a remarkable impact on single use carrier bags, but I know it has taken me a long time to get into the habit of taking a bag with me. My shopping pattern is little-but-often, usually en route to/from another destination on foot or bicycle, so I do have to think ahead. If I have to carry a tupperware carton to a meeting because I want to stock up on pasta on the way back, it adds an extra level of inconvenience.
My prediction is that refills will work for a (possibly substantial) minority, but most goods will remain in traditional packaging. That means we have to accelerate the development of the circular economy no matter how well the Oxford experiment goes.
We shall see.