Grocery retailers are struggling to cut plastic packaging out of online orders, but Brixton-based online grocer Good Club believes it’s found a solution to the problem 

Many supermarkets have taken steps to cut single-use plastic from their stores. But cutting plastic packaging from online delivery remains a monumental challenge. It’s a task a new breed of online grocery stores are starting to take on, though.

It was through setting up his own food buying club with some neighbours that Ben Patten first had the idea for Good Club - an online grocery store offering sustainable staples at around 1.7% lower than the market price. Now he has raised over £450,000 to develop a new “closed-loop” proposition for his customers, who are now nationwide, in a crowdfunding round that closed at midnight on 20 June.

The mission for the Brixton-based online grocer is to develop packaging and technology to directly tackle the single-use plastic crisis. It will use its funds to launch a closed-loop trial with 5%-10% of its 1,500 customers on a range of its own-brand products in the autumn. The grocer then plans to open its own operations for picking and packing and offer closed-loop products to all customers.

Patten is yet to nail down details of how the courier-based service will work but, in essence, the plan is for delivery packaging (made from recycled materials) and product packaging to be returned to Good Club to be cleaned and reused. There will be a membership fee (yet to be worked out) and a flexible deposit scheme.

“We envisage people being able to hold on to their containers for different lengths of time - some products will be decanted immediately, others will be stored in the container - but they will all have a deposit cost. This means that if a customer did not return a container, they would effectively be buying it.”

Good Club has started a customer development programme, and there’s already been a huge amount of interest from consumers wanting to take part in the autumn trial.

But there are issues Good Club must overcome. How will it make sure its proposition is commercially viable? “Because we sell such a small range of products, we have quite a simple packing process, and we’re able to get to buying economies quite quickly,” Patten explains. “Quite often, the big grocers selling online are in a price war and running two operational models, which is reducing the efficiency of both.”

The fact Good Club is only selling ambient products and household goods means it can use an overnight courier service and ship goods across the whole of the UK - there’s no cold chain to manage.

Patten is insistent that it will not move away from its core proposition of supplying customers with these staple products. “If we start to expand, then we undermine the economics of the model and that starts to affect our brand mission, which is to make sustainability more accessible.

“We want to grow the service, and believe we can grow it in other geographies,” he adds, “but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ve gone for a specific market - the UK, people who care about sustainability, and we’re providing them with the monthly staples they need.”

“If we start to expand, then we undermine the economics of the model and that starts to affect our brand mission”

Other companies have also started taking steps to cut packaging from online grocery delivery. Zero Waste Club, which launched in January last year, has cut out plastic altogether. It sells organic dry food products in a packaging called Earthpouch - a paper bag with a cellulose lining. “This packaging is biodegradable and can be recycled through the paper recycling bins provided by the council,” says co-founder Rishi Gupta.

“We use second-hand boxes where we can and seal them with kraft paper tape. We use recycled void paper to fill any gaps in the box to ensure the food products arrive safely.” The company currently has 120 SKUs, with plans to expand the range.

Ditching single-use plastic is what many consumers want. They’re even willing to pay extra (a YouGov poll in April found 27% of shoppers would pay £5 more on a £100 shop to have plastic removed). But while major retailers take tentative steps in their online operations, the real innovation is coming from agile online specialists like these, coming up with novel ways to cut plastic from online delivery. The gauntlet has been thrown down.