The UK Circular Plastics Network caught up with Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged to find out more about the organisation and the relationship with UKCPN.
Catherine Conway, Founder of Unpackaged
Hi Catherine, could you please introduce yourself, your background and your role at Unpackaged?
Hello, I’m Catherine Conway, the founder of Unpackaged – we’re zero waste specialists on a mission to get the world refilling. In other words, we want to make it possible for every customer to buy their goods without packaging, whether that’s bringing their own container to refill, or getting products in reusable packaging that they use and give back.
We mainly do this in three ways:
- Delivering refill and reuse consultancy projects for UK and multinational clients, e.g. Waitrose, Sainsburys, Ocado, Nestle, CHEP, WRAP & Greenpeace
- Developing partnerships with like-minded and complementary businesses, e.g. our bulk refill concessions within Planet Organic stores, and our UnpackagedAT collaboration with Cotswold Fayre which offers standalone refill units to the independent trade
- Providing workshops and support for people looking to set up and run their own zero waste shops.
We’re a lean team, and my role is very hands-on across our various projects, as well as supporting my colleagues. Day-to-day that could mean delivering workshops or conceptualising new products & services for our consultancy clients; helping to develop policy to support the growth of reuse & refill or running in-person training for one of our retail partners. I love all aspects of the job from the strategic work to being on the shop floor helping our retail partners make a success of zero waste.
Could you tell us a bit about the background of Unpackaged (what you do/what sectors you operate in/what makes you unique):
I set up Unpackaged in 2006 – we were the first modern zero waste store. We went from a market stall to a small shop in Islington, then a larger shop in Hackney, then a partnership with Planet Organic, which introduced Unpackaged into many of their stores.
A couple of years ago, Blue Planet II brought plastics far more into the public consciousness, and around that time we helped Waitrose to set up their zero waste offering, Unpacked. Now we work with a whole array of businesses (mostly retailers and brands) to help them achieve their sustainability goals and reduce their single-use packaging, whilst driving our mission to get the world refilling. In the last year or so, this has led to some really interesting opportunities to get more involved with policy making with organisations such as WRAP, the UK Plastics Pact and Greenpeace.
What makes us unique is the breadth of our experience, our knowledge and our network. We’ve been at the forefront for 15 years – a pioneer of the zero waste movement – so we know what works and have a brilliant network of experts who can bring their skills to our projects. We have both the hands-on experience of running shops (large and small) but also have the strategic perspective of what needs to change to support reuse & refill from working with NGO’s and government.
What inspired you to set up Unpackaged?
Unpackaged was borne out of my own personal experience and frustration at the amount of unnecessary single-use packaging, and in particular single-use plastic packaging, I was having to bring into my home.
Back in 2005, I was living in a flat in Hackney with a mouse problem – I was having to decant all my food into jars, and throw away the packaging. I remember very clearly standing there with all this useless packaging in my hands thinking why can’t I just buy everything in refills, straight into my jars.
I became obsessed with the problem and wanting to solve it, and decided to set up a shop where people could bring their own containers to refill. From the start, I always wanted to attract mainstream shoppers, as opposed to people like me who were already “super green” – so I focused on design, and range, and convenience to make a really appealing shopping experience. Unpackaged has evolved organically since then, as more and more people have become aware of the single-use packaging problem and sought alternatives.
15 years since we started, plastic pollution is still having a devastating impact on our environment. According to the EMF, over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and that’s expected to double again in the next two decades. Over a quarter of this plastic is used for packaging; most of which gets used once, and then thrown away. Recycling helps but we can’t recycle our way out of this enormous volume of waste – we need to stop producing it in the first place, which is where reuse and refill comes in.
What are the challenges and opportunities facing your company and the sectors in which you operate?
If you’d asked me 10-15 years ago, I’d have probably said the main challenge was that the mainstream customer wasn’t quite ready. Like many entrepreneurs, I knew that it was only a matter of time, but had to be patient and adapt Unpackaged to where the market was at – we’ve been through many iterations of our business model as we’ve had to pivot to survive.
Now, I’d say the customer is definitely ready for change, and eager to see retailers and brands leading the way. Recent (Opinium) research showed that 60% – 85% of UK adults across all ages and socio economic backgrounds would try refilling if it was available in a mainstream supermarket.
But the main challenge is scale – how do we scale many of the brilliant start-ups to a level that makes them commercially viable and doesn’t add cost into the supply chain? We’re working with some key retailers on a standardised solution to help address this, and really excited about the wide scale change this could bring about.
What specific help did KTN/UKCPN give you and did we help you meet any collaborators/offer any introductions? What has your experience been of working with KTN/UKCPN?
KTN have always been extremely supportive of our work – inviting us to events (both as a participant and to speak about our work) which has helped us make an array of connections across the industry; as well as taking me on a trip to a MRF (material recovery facility) which was always my dream!
The team at KTN have always followed up events with individual introductions when we’ve needed them (for example a key collaborator now in the plastics industry was introduced by KTN), and really stepped up during the pandemic to keep offering their events so we’ve participated in many webinars which has helped our work during a really difficult time.
In addition, the team at KTN have helped us with InnovateUK funding bids by reading our submissions and offering really helpful feedback to improve.
It’s the personal support that the team at KTN gives that really helps – there’s always someone on the end of the phone who takes an interest in what we’re trying to do and helps us – we really value it.
Have you benefited from receiving funding? If so, how did you use/how are you utilising this funding support?
Yes, we received InnovateUK funding for a Feasibility Study in the summer of 2020. This enabled us, and our partner CHEP, to develop and model the concept for a standardised, pooled supply chain solution to help scale refills for mainstream retail.
This coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic; it enabled us to make significant progress towards reducing unnecessary packaging at a time when there was a risk of things going in the opposite direction, for example, many coffee shops stopped accepting reusables.
We are using the results of that Feasibility Study to apply for the next stage of Demonstrator Funding.
Where do you see Unpackaged growing and do you have scope for expansion outside of the UK?
Because of our experience and overview of the sector, we’re very well placed to work on the challenges of how to scale reuse & refill solutions to get them into the mainstream.
There’s definitely scope for expansion outside of the UK – we have a lot of interest from overseas, and it’s a natural extension of what we do.
What’s next for Unpackaged?
We will continue to work with both the independent sector, as well as large retailers and FMCG companies – we know we need to work with both to fulfill our mission of getting the world refilling.
We’re currently rolling out our UnpackagedAT units to the independent sector and developing our supply chain solution with a key group of retailers as there’s such an opportunity to drive system change.
We’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done – applying our knowledge and expertise where we can have the biggest impact. The single-use packaging crisis is still a huge problem to solve – we’re not sitting still and never will!
You can visit the Unpackaged website here.