Florence Tay (right), first started Unpackt with her Co-founder Jeff Lam, after realising that sustainability can be a practical business move (Image: Unpackt)
When Florence Tay first had her daughter, she was eager to provide her with the best. Among other things, this meant sourcing organic foods for meals. But she soon found that shopping for organic food in Singapore was expensive and oftentimes wasteful, as her small family often could not finish the amount of pre-packaged food purchased before their expiry date.
When she later came across a video on social media of a bulk grocery store, Florence had her ‘eureka’ moment.
“I thought it was very practical to just buy what you need…buying that small amount is more practical and cost saving as compared to buying a pre-packaged amount,” she shares. “You lead a healthier lifestyle at a fraction of the cost.”
Additionally, Florence recognised that packaging on its own is an added cost. By removing this, businesses are able to also pass on cost savings to their customers.
It is with these perks in mind that Florence decided to start Unpackt – Singapore’s first zero waste, bulk grocery store.
In her humble shopfront along Jalan Kuras, visitors will find bulk bins offering numerous types of grains, pastas, nuts and oats; bins of snacks; an assortment of sustainable products; and more. As for what they won’t find? Any plastic bags, unnecessary packaging, or rows upon rows of single-use products.
While Florence acknowledged that her business model was initially met with scepticism from consumers, she shares that the sentiments have shifted over the years as people are becoming more aware and knowledgeable about sustainable practices.
Small steps, big impact
Other business owners wanting to make a difference need not make a radical shift to their business model like Florence did. Rather, little things can go a long way, according to her.
For instance, Florence recommends for businesses to not offer straws or plastic bags by default. This way, customers who require it can ask for it, but those who don’t need it will automatically be encouraged to consume in moderation.
She also encourages business owners to reuse packaging or to encourage customers to bring back their packaging to do refills, where applicable.
Another avenue businesses can look into to become more sustainable is in their own internal operations. For instance, they can consider purchasing in bulk when stocking up their corporate pantries to avoid packaging waste.
Purchasing food items in bulk for corporate pantries can be an easy first step for businesses to reduce packaging and food waste while saving cost (Image: Unpackt)
Unpackt offers corporate pantry services where businesses can order staples like coffee, tea or snacks in large bins or containers. In the office, employees can then help themselves to these items with reusable cups or bowls that they either bring from home, or are for shared use in the pantry.
Such bulk offerings have multiple benefits, Florence shares. For one, it means that employees can only take what they would like to consume. Oftentimes, employees may take a pack of snacks from the pantry, only to find that they’re unable to finish the full pack. Besides reducing food waste, this also allows employees to consume a variety of snacks since they are able to take just one biscuit of each flavour, for instance.
Purchasing in bulk can also be a cheaper alternative than buying pre-packaged food items since companies are not paying for the additional packaging cost.
“I always tell people, we don’t eat the packaging, but we pay for the packaging. Then we throw the packaging, and we pay to burn the packaging. It’s not practical to me,” Florence says.
Additionally, such internal changes can be a great way to transform people’s mentality, Florence shares. “Internally, we can…encourage our own staff to be more environmentally conscious. Consequently, when you roll out a certain plan and change the business models towards your front-facing customers, your own staff also supports it and understands why,” she explains.
The need for change
“As we work in more sustainable practices in our business model, it actually paves the way for the future,” Florence says.
Resources are limited and Singapore’s only landfill, Pulau Semakau, is filling up, she explains. While these may not have an immediate impact on businesses, Florence believes that the emphasis on a circular economy and sustainability will only increase.
Already, Singapore has been taking steps to become a Zero Waste Nation. The Mandatory Packaging Reporting scheme, for instance, requires companies to provide information on the packaging they are introducing into the country annually.
“We might as well buck [the trend] while it’s new, so that we have time to finetune the process [of reducing packaging waste],” Florence says.
While there may be initial start-up costs when businesses decide to remove packaging, they can benefit from cost savings in the long run (Image: Unpackt)
Nevertheless, she acknowledges that pursuing sustainability and making the effort to reduce packaging waste can be time consuming and troublesome, but believes that someone, somehow, has to start making a change.
Business owners need to think more about the future, according to Florence.
From her experience of running Unpackt, she reveals that reusing packaging or encouraging customers to refill their goods may incur a larger start-up cost. But the cost savings will come in the long run, she says.
“If everybody feels that it’s very leychey (Singaporean slang for “troublesome”) [and are] very business and profit-oriented, then I don’t know how the world will be in the future,” she says. “In everything, we need to learn how to give and take…we have to understand that the cost either comes now, or it comes later.”
Make a small step towards sustainability by using more energy-efficient equipment. The Energy Efficiency Grant (EEG)can help businesses within the Food Services, Food Manufacturing and Retail sectors make the switch by subsidising the purchase of such equipment! Check out the details of the grant on GoBusiness.
This article is accurate as at 31 Mar 2023