Implementing Zero Waste Into Your Business
Reducing waste is one of the most important things we should be doing right now as a species. It’s evident that we are literally trashing our planet out of convenience and I think most of us feel that there is little we can do. Every choice we make matters, right down to refusing that plastic bag the cashier is trying to give you. I think most of us assume we can’t do much beyond our personal lives to move towards a zero waste lifestyle but many of us here are small business owners, we can make a HUGE impact. Everything a business does creates waste in some form and I think that businesses (especially huge corporations, but we can start this movement for them) are going to be what drives people to make bigger changes in their everyday. Every product requires resources and waste to create and I believe there are many things we can do to cut back on said waste. While I try to implement zero waste into my lifestyle and my businesses, I’m not perfect (no one is!) and I feel like I really need to talk to someone who has a little more experience in this. When I was in Harrisonburg (my hometown area in Virginia) I visited a sweet little shop called Bring Your Own LLC. It was such an inspiring place and gave me hope that people are actually going out of their way to choose zero waste items for their home and personal use. I contacted them on Instagram after making my own purchases and the owner Allie and I have been chatting on and off since. Allie’s business is all about zero waste so obviously she’s implementing zero waste into what she does. I contacted her and asked if she’d do a little Q+A with me and she said yes, so here we are!
I’m really hoping to spark a little interest in you to make some changes in what you’re producing and how you’re getting it to your consumer. Choosing to not use plastic packaging, recycling packaging, reusing containers, giving incentives to return empty containers, choosing earth friendly resources to create your product, etc, etc, there is so much we can do here!
Tell us about yourself and your business.
I went to James Madison University to study elementary education. After graduating, I taught elementary school for 3 years, and didn't love it like I thought I would. My mom has been a kindergarten teacher for almost 20 years, and I just assumed I would love it like she does! About halfway into my third year teaching, I applied for a job at Friendly City Food Co-op, knowing that I wasn't going back to teach the following year. I resigned from my teaching position a month later, and after finishing out the school year, I had no idea what I was going to do! I was really in an "oh crap, what am I doing with my life?" situation. Having my reusable water bottle, shopping bags, mason jars for bulk, etc. was always a conversation starter at the co-op, and I became the go-to person among employees whenever someone had a "zero waste" question. Our co-op offers regular classes, taught by community members on a wide range of topics. Someone suggested that I teach a zero waste class. I was really hesitant, because I am just a self-taught nature lover. Everything that I practice has either been learned from the internet, or just seems like common sense to me. I ended up teaching a class on "how to live zero waste," and it had the highest attendance of any class ever taught at the co-op in 6 years. I gave my email address out at the end of class, and had people emailing me for months with questions about "what do I use instead of ____?" or "how do I do ____?" It really opened my eyes to how many people care about making a difference, but just have no idea how or where to start. When withSimplicity listed their Airstream trailer for sale, my mom really encouraged me to buy it to open a store. As someone with no formal education in sustainability or environmentalism, and NO education in business, I was really hesitant and nervous. My mom kept pushing, and I decided to take the leap. We've been open since October 2017, at which point we started in a small Airstream trailer. In July 2018, we moved into a shared storefront space. I am still learning every day how to run a business, and it's not something I ever thought I'd be doing, but I love it!
What spurred your interest in zero waste personally (before starting your business)? Where did you begin? Did you have any resources that helped you along the way (books, blogs, etc)?
I have a hard time recalling when I really started caring about zero waste. I think I always did, but just didn't have a name for it. An old friend from elementary school reminded me the other day about the club we started in 4th grade called the "Nature Nuts." We had very strict guidelines for other students who wanted to join the club, and every recess revolved around observing plants, bugs, etc. around the playground. We also spent a lot of recess time picking up trash! I grew up in the woods in a very small farm town in Northern Va, and spent most of my free time playing outside as a kid. It was just common sense to me that based on how much I loved being outside, it was important to take care of the outdoors. My mom never bought us things like single use water bottles, and I just grew up practicing zero waste, without really knowing it. When I went to college, I was surrounded with wasteful items that my roommates used, and it was pretty eye opening. After I graduated college, I got SCUBA certified, and I think that's when I really started diving (ha - no pun intended) into the idea of zero waste. It was amazing to see trash in the ocean, miles and miles away from the shoreline.
What inspired you to begin a business surrounding zero waste?
It's hard to say where I really began.. I have used reusable water bottles and shopping bags my whole life. One day I stumbled upon Lauren Singer's instagram (@trashisfortossers), and my mom got me this book at some point. The two really opened my eyes to so many things I had never thought of, but that were such easily attainable goals! I started reading blogs like Lauren's, discovered more zero waste instagram accounts, and one thing led to another!
How do you run a business with zero waste?
Great question! There are so many things that you would see at a typical retail store that you won't find here. Sometimes it makes things challenging, but also fun! Every detail of the shop is intentionally designed. It may not look fancy, but I'm okay with that. Our business cards are stamped with a rubber stamp and thrift store ink pads onto the backs of things like cracker boxes and scrap paper. Everything for the online store is shipped with boxes that I save from wholesale orders, and ones that are donated by friends and customers. I have yet to ship something in a brand new box. Our packing tape is from Eco Enclose, and is a water-activated paper tape. I opted out of the fancy tape dispenser, and use a cup of water and a paintbrush to wet the tape. I reuse brown packing paper from wholesale orders for padding of fragile things. I don't include a packing slip with online orders. Our price tags, like our business cards, are written on the backs of boxes and other things. I do not give out shopping bags to customers unless they ask, and then I give out a bag from our collection of mis-matched donated bags. A customer might receive a bag with another company's logo on it. I order printer ink from a website that refills the ink cartridges, and send the empty cartridges back to them. I don't have a tape dispenser or a stapler, or most other typical office supplies. Many of our display pieces have been thrifted or handmade with old wood.
When it comes to ordering products, before placing my first order, I always ask how the company ships stuff. If they typically ship in plastic or bubble wrap, I ask if they're able to ship in paper. A couple times I've received orders with plastic packaging, and immediately called the company to complain. I've basically said, "if you can't ship my orders plastic-free, I'm going to find someone else who can." It's one of the major things I look for when adding new wholesale partners. I think it's really important to hold bigger companies accountable!
If you could suggest one thing a business could implement to begin their zero waste journey, what would it be?
I think this depends on the type of business! For retail businesses, I'd say start holding your vendors accountable for their shipping materials. I've talked to a lot of business owners in town who say things like, "I don't know what to do with all the plastic - all my products come wrapped in it!!" and my response is usually, "well, have you ever asked them not to do that?!" Most people don't think to question things like that. I think a waste audit would be a good place to start for any business, though. It can be really interesting to keep your trash for a month, sort through it, and see what the bulk of your trash consists of!
Why is reducing waste so important?
Reducing waste is important because manufacturing and transporting new products costs a lot of money and uses a ton of energy and natural resources. We then have to use more money, energy, and resources to process these products once we're finished with them. Landfills are responsible for 20% of the methane gas emissions in the US. The more waste we send to our landfills, the more methane gas is released, contributing to climate change and pollution of our air and waterways. It's also important to think about the waste that never even makes it to the landfills. Much of it blows off the trash trucks on the way to the landfill, or never even makes it into a trash can in the first place. The goal of zero waste is to move toward a circular economy, where everything is reused and resumed fully back into the system. This system mimics nature, as there is no trash in nature.
Where can people find you? You can find us in Harrisonburg, Va in Agora Downtown Market (165 S. Main St.), online at www.bringyourownllc.com, on facebook as Bring Your Own, LLC, or on instagram as @bringyourown_llc
So, small business owners, how are you cutting waste in your business? Tell me in the comments! This topic is so interesting to me. <3