Total number of lines: 100+
Store size: 450 sq ft
Forecasted turnover: £200K
If you spot a trendy Islington resident leaving their house armed with empty plastic boxes and bottles they may not be heading to the nearest recycling facility - or at least not the sort most of us are familiar with.
Islington is home to Unpackaged, which boasts virtually no packaged products, instead encouraging shoppers to bring reusable containers to buy exactly the amounts they want of the organic food and environmentally friendly household products on offer.
The imaginative store, which opened two months ago, is the brainchild of Catherine Conway, a 30-year-old former charity worker. She insists the store is as accessible to housing association tenants as well-to-do eco warriors, thanks to its competitive pricing. “The aim is to supply affordable organic food and ethical lines, not luxuries,” she says. “We're a bit more expensive than a supermarket but not much. Ecover washing-up liquid is £1.73 in Tesco. When you refill here it's £1.75.”
If they forget their own containers shoppers can purchase reusable ziplock bags for 50p, she adds, though a handful of lines, such as wine and greetings cards, remain packaged out of necessity. “Some things we sell in packaging rather than not at all, such as organic cotton wool, but we always offer to take the packaging back,” she says.
Conway was working on regeneration projects in West London when she began to realise how serious the excess packaging issue was. “I was frustrated with the ridiculous amount of packaging I threw away,” she says. “There had to be another way.”
A year ago, she secured a social enterprise grant to test the idea with a stall at local markets in London. It went down well with shoppers and she was able to gain a commercial loan to rent the grade II corner shop that now houses Unpackaged. “It had been boarded up and the idea of revitalising it fitted our ethos,” says Conway. “It was also ideal because of its highly residential location and good transport links - we have customers from all over London.”
Unpackaged opened with a very limited product range - just 20 different dry goods and 15 household lines - but now has more than 100 lines, including locally produced bread, cheese and cereals, as well as Fairtrade nuts, seeds and whole foods, and organic wine. “People ask me to get something in and I do,” says Conway. “It's a level of engagement they may not get elsewhere.”
Conway believes customer refills through her store alone will divert nearly 10,000 pieces of packaging a year from landfill.
It has sometimes been tough to secure supply, she admits. “Some suppliers say 'Who are you? What's your trading history?' If a multiple asked them, they would find a way to do it, but for me it has been a challenge.”
However, Conway has ambitious plans to diversify the offer with organic meat, bottled milk, a partnership with a nappy laundering service and a veg box scheme supplied by a Norfolk farm co-operative.
She also hopes to offer a monthly office delivery service for consumables such as washing up liquid, and a salad food to go offer - though people will have to bring their own lunchboxes, of course.
The full package without the packaging, in short.
Manager - Catherine Conway
After trialling her packaging-free concept at local markets last year, Catherine Conway secured a loan to open her first store.
“The refill model is great for repeat business and there are higher margins on bulk goods, so it was quite easy to get a loan,” she says. Conway hopes Unpackaged will develop into a social enterprise franchise business, improving local communities and giving everybody access to good food.
“My aim is to demonstrate we don't have to rely on charities or government funds to solve problems.”