Sack Your Bag at Unpackaged

Jenni Jane Hellstern April 18, 2012 2
Sack Your Bag at Unpackaged

Unpackaged, Pioneer Living in LondonI’m sitting in a cyber cafe in Pune, India. My two friends and I are probably the only non-Indian people in town. Pune is a world all of its own, where doing it the old fashioned way is the only way to do it.

Simple is almost always better here in Pune, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the produce markets scattered all about town. To be honest, “produce market” might be a bit of a strong term, as they’re mostly men and women on the side of the road with today’s offerings splayed on a cloth before them. At this market, you can buy only one thing: whatever they happened to bring with them from the garden that morning. There are no mangoes out of season, or garlic… ever.

In Pune this is simply how they live. They don’t exactly have another option. But across the West, this concept is becoming somewhat en vogue. Before coming to Pune, I stopped on over in London, where a phenomenon known as Pioneer Living is starting to take off. Simply put, Pioneer Living is people making strides to live in a more environmentally gentle manner, like the pioneers of the American West. It’s about staying honest to the roots of living and making small changes that will ultimately keep you healthier, and wealthier.

Organic produce, unpackaged and sold in bulkFor years, grocers, foodies, restaurateurs and consumers have been unearthing new and creative ways to keep the food industry more community and earth friendly, but no one had really addressed the big issue at hand in grocery shops the world over: packaging.

In 2008, 31% of municipal waste generated in the US came from the discarded packaging of food items. Sure, we might bring our canvas bags to the store, but think about all the packaging we put into them when we check out. Boxes containing packages with individually wrapped bite-sized whatevers. Bags are a great start to reduce the amount of waste we put into the earth, but they’re just that, a start.

Pioneer Living is best represented by Unpackaged, a small London shop founded by Catherine Conway with the belief that there is a better way to sell products. A way that will allow them and their customers to do the right thing, both for the environment, as well as themselves. The idea is simple. Everything in the store is sold in bulk, local when it can be (which is a lot of the time), and always organic.


In 2008, 31% of municipal waste generated in the US came from the discarded packaging of food items.


But this isn’t just an organic Sam’s Club. Unlike big box super stores, one of the main goals of Unpackaged is to drastically reduce the giant share of the world’s trash held by grocers and other consumer product stores. So unlike these big bulk stores, the packages aren’t just bigger, they’re completely removed. Parts of the store are reminiscent of a produce cart in a small countryside town. Others are lined with well organized bottles. Loaves of home baked bread rest on beautifully placed slabs of stone. Customers bring their own containers, anything will do, and fill them with the amount the need as many times as they want. One of Unpackaged’s patrons has been refilling the same bag for five years.

Bulk food assortment at Unpackaged in LondonBeyond reducing the amount of waste created with food packaging, Pioneer Living stores like Unpackaged also help to severely reduce the inherent waste in buying more than you need. One of my biggest pet peeves is having a recipe that calls for a cup of brown sugar, and having to buy a whole bag of the stuff. It always goes hard when you aren’t looking. Barrels of Olive Oil with spouts line the wall next to oak wine barrels. I can’t imagine, though, when you’d need to buy less than a bottle of wine. People must bring old water cooler bottles to fill, or simply drink it straight from the tap. “How much for the barrel?” In addition to produce and dry goods, Unpackaged also sells an array of household items ready to fill your Vaganaise containers with, like fantastic hand soaps, body washes, shampoos/containers, and even laundry detergents.

Above all things great about this company are the simple and honest values backing it up. Catherine knows that nothing can happen overnight, especially when you are trying to transform people’s habits. She spent a year promoting the concept as a market stall in 2006 before opening the Islington located shop in 2007. Plans are in the making for a big move to an even bigger space in the next few months and there are hopes to add a cafe to the mix. The success that Catherine and other stores like Unpackaged are having is a clear sign that people are noticing more and more the waste they create, and that now, they’re actually going to do something about it. It just goes to show you, sometimes great design is no design at all.

Video: Portlandia “No Grocery Bag”

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  • HEATHER ma

    I love this concept and would shop there in a heartbeat! We in the western world are slow to this kind of thinking. I have on occasion not used the produce plastic bags in my local grocery store…I get strange looks at the cash wrap when the loose produce is staring up from my cart. Its a nice place to start and something we have control over in all grocery stores as far as packaging. Seems crazy when you think about those plastic bags… produce goes in them,they go in your cart and home…and in the trash. NUTS! Great story!

  • James

    Heather – same here. Unless I’m getting a bag of green beans or mushrooms, I typically don’t use the plastic bags for my produce. I think a store like Unpackaged could do well in Dallas. This article has me really analyzing my habits. Excellent story!!