Mixed fortunes of zero-waste stores in Singapore: More effort needed for culture to take off

Mixed fortunes of zero-waste stores in Singapore: More effort needed for culture to take off

reprovisions store front
Reprovisions in Jurong. (Photo: Reprovisions' Facebook page)

SINGAPORE: Local zero-waste store Reprovisions, which was located in Jurong Point shopping mall, shut down this week, after about a year in business.

The store sold items like packaging-free food and snacks, refillable soaps and reusable items, in line with the zero-waste culture that advocates going packaging free, and reducing consumption.

The store’s co-founder Ms Yeo told CNA that the store was not getting enough footfall to cover the rental cost, which she did not reveal.

Demand was not consistent, she said, describing it as “volatile”.

The store put up a Facebook post on Monday (Nov 11) announcing that it was shutting down.

“In spite of all (this) - we clawed and clamoured and hung on to every sliver of hope. We ultimately have fallen short of curtailing high overhead costs,” the post said.

READ: Could more be done to reduce plastic packaging waste in Singapore's supermarkets?

But it was not for a lack of trying. Ms Yeo said she and her partner tried “all ways and means” to stay afloat.

They widened the range of products, and stepped up their outreach to customers by printing posters and banners in Mandarin to educate them better. A membership scheme was also rolled out, she said.

They also put up a call for a partner on Facebook, hoping to attract an investor and approached Government agencies for grants.

“There wasn’t any glimmer of hope. We have exhausted our funds,” she said.

WAITING FOR THE BIG BOYS TO TAKE OVER

Eco.le is another zero-waste store facing difficulties. Tucked in a corner of Bukit Timah which does not get much footfall, the store is running in the red after about a year of operations, said owner Ms Thng Hui Hien.

READ: Packaging-free stores sprout in Singapore, but will consumers give them the green light?

She had quit her job in the oil and gas industry to open the store so she could help to kickstart the zero-waste culture, and show how supermarkets can adopt it.

Supermarkets would have an advantage through economies of scale, she said. 

“They can make zero waste a norm, a culture. Consumers who are willing to be converted have already converted, the rest are followers,” she said.

She was passionate about the urgency for change to be made.

“It is an emergency. Climate change is real, people outside of Singapore are dying from it. By the time we feel its effect here, it might be too late,” she said.

Green Collective 1
Eco·Le, that sells dried food in bulk, is one of 15 eco-brands housed at The Green Collective pop-up store. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

When asked about the potential business consideration these bigger players might have, she said businesses who are worried about their bottomline if they go down the zero-waste path, should be aware that the profit might come to naught if there is a global food shortage, she added, citing growing threats in Europe.

In September, the European Environment Agency published a report titled “Climate change threatens future of farming in Europe”, warning of a decline in agricultural production.

UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACED BY THE INDUSTRY

Another store, Unpackt, which last year was the first zero-waste store to open in Singapore, is breaking even, said co-founder Florence Tay.

Demand is a “rollercoaster”, she said. When new stores open, traffic to her store dips, but stabilises, she said.

READ: Zero-waste shopping? Packaging-free grocery store Unpackt opens in Singapore

While footfall may not be a problem with a group of regular customers, and curious people walking in, she faces a different set of issues - customers causing wastage and spillage.

For instance, she said, customers dispense liquids like oils stored in an opaque container, just to see what is inside although there are labels, and signs requesting them not to do so. They also do not respect the hygiene required to keep the packaging-free foods fresh.

They open containers that are labelled “do not open”, she said. In order to deal with this, they changed the containers to make it harder for them to open.

Unpackt 4
Self-service dispensers are used to store food items in UnPackt. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

She tried to sell fresh produce, but had to take them off the shelves.

“We had students peeling the leaves off the corn, and someone even juggled with the tomatoes,” she said.

READ: Why some plastic packaging is necessary - a commentary

She put these down to curiosity. Demand is growing, but slowly, she said and believes there is currently more supply than demand.

SOME STORES ARE EXPANDING

However, Australia-based firm The Source Bulk Foods, which opened about three months ago, will be expanding, opening a store in Great world City larger than its current one in Cluny Court. So will Scoop Wholefoods, also an Australian brand.

The Source Bulk Foods’ master franchiser Rob Behennah told CNA that he spent 36 hours over three weeks observing the demographics in Cluny Court before deciding to open there.

“We have 54 stores in Australia, we have stores in the United Kingdom and the United States. We know who our shoppers are, what they look like, regardless of ethnicity,” he said.

Business at the store is already 50 per cent above target, with 85 per cent of his customers being locals, he said.

He has customers who come from Punggol and East Coast who call ahead to check on prices and stock availability to make sure that they don’t make a wasted trip. He also has students coming to the store to buy healthier snacks like nuts, he said.

The local support came as a surprise, Mr Behennah said. The firm had wanted to tap into the relatively small Australian customer base here as well as high income expatriates, as they thought they would need 50 per cent of customers to have an affinity to the brand.

THE ADVANTAGE OF A BRAND

Singapore Polytechnic School of Business lecturer Lim Xiu Ru Said that The Source Bulk Foods enjoys the advantage of economies of scale. This is important, as cost savings, rather than being environmentally conscious, is the priority of many, she said.

There are already pockets of customers who buy into the concept of zero waste, because they have been exposed to the messages, said Ms Lim,

“There is a small pool of customers that is slowly growing. But it is whether it’s growing fast enough to sustain the expansion of the zero-waste industry,” she said.

Signs promoting plastic free products and packaging are seen at Budgens supermarket
Signs promoting plastic free products and packaging are seen as shoppers browse the shelves at Budgens supermarket in Belsize Park, north London on Jul 2, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Tolga Akmen)

Nanyang Polytechnic senior lecturer from the School of Business Management James Sim said that the chain’s brand is also an advantage, with Singaporeans depending on the familiarity of brands as a sign of quality and safety.

However, he said that there is some way to go before people here adopt zero-waste out of habit.

READ: Biodegradable plastic alternatives not necessarily better for Singapore, say experts

He added that these stores need to find an e-commerce model that could work, as they are a facing “the tsunami tide” of online shopping.

“Many people still value convenience over everything else. So if they have to go personally instead of ordering online, and go to more shops than one because that one doesn’t sell everything, then that’s a barrier to the movement taking off,” he said.

Source: CNA/ja

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