“When I take my little girl to the store, I always tell her buy what you need, not what you want! I must be the only shopkeeper who tells customers not to buy more!”
This in a nutshell sums up Florence Tay’s passion. Her easy, friendly manner welcomes one into her store “Unpackt”, located in the heart of Singapore’s suburban neighbourhood Ang Mo Kio. Unpackt is the city-state’s first zero-waste grocery and lifestyle concept store. With a 5.6 million population, Singapore’s consumption trajectory is only set to grow exponentially. But the challenge that remains is how to ensure that consumption is sustainable.
In 2017, Singapore generated about 7.8 million tons of waste. 820 thousand tonnes of this was made of plastic wastes. Only 6 per cent of all plastic wastes generated was ultimately recycled.
Florence notes that public interest is slowly rising when it comes to plastic pollution. “Currently, we do have a lot of plastic waste in Singapore, but people are getting more conscious. As people get more conscious, they will slowly change their lifestyle. Zero waste alternatives are not readily accessible in Singapore, so we need to start having options for consumers who can do their shopping without polluting the Earth.”
Unpackt has been a year in the making. With a background in private sector, running businesses and engaging with charities, Florence discovered that her passion lies in helping her community. Inspired by a video she saw of a zero-waste grocery store in Europe, Florence teamed up with her business partner Jeff Lam to set up the store.
“I’m a practical person,” she says. “I realized I was throwing away things that I had paid for, but didn’t necessarily consume.” This motivated her to look into how a packaging-free, zero waste grocery concept could work in a city like Singapore.
Rows of large dispensers with grains, pulses and nuts line up one wall, that customers can help themselves to. Against the other wall are stacked large containers of organic detergents and washing up liquids made from eco-enzymes and natural products such as fruit peels, soap nuts, baking soda and vinegar. In addition to these, Unpackt also sells reusable utensils, straws, cups, freezer bags, beeswax wraps and the like as well as eco-friendly make-up removers and menstrual cups. Florence shares that they also plan to venture into fresh vegetables and fruits in some months. While most products are locally sourced through partnerships with other social enterprises, some products such as organic grains tend to be imported.
Florence has also struck up a scheme with the coffee shops on either side of the store. Plastic milk bottles, glass bottles and containers used in these restaurants, all make their way to Unpackt at the end of the week. In the eventuality that a customer walks in without their own bags or containers, Unpackt has shelves of recycled/ reusable containers that customers can use. “It is a small step to get the restaurants and coffee shops here involved, maybe further down they will take their own steps to be sustainable. For starters, the coffee shops could make straws optional with drinks,” says Florence.
Unpackt’s store space doubles up as a workshop space- large and airy with chairs and tables for a gathering. “I want to turn this into a community space”, Florence explains. “We plan to invite schools to this space where we can teach students about simple actions they can do- like composting or growing their own organic greens.”
Despite the interest that the store and its concept has generated, Unpackt’s founders are not supported by any big ticket investors. Florence and her business partner Jeff Lam are cautious of what they can deliver and want to test out how a small enterprise such as Unpackt can cater to the needs of the community as well as run feasibly as a stand-alone business model.
Singapore has long been a growing leader for entrepreneurship and innovation. In January 2019, Singapore will host the Third Asia Pacific Environment Ministers’ Forum. Social enterprises like Unpackt can be critical catalysts in realizing the Government of Singapore’s efforts to promote sustainable consumption and production.
“The first switch to consume sustainably is crucial. It needs to motivate people to see the effects of their actions and to continue doing their bit. At Unpackt, we’re helping people make that first switch.”