Things I Didn't Need - Tara's Minimalist Year

Last year our ever-inspired founder and dear leader Tara Button decided to cut the crap. Living for a year without extraneous items, this list was to be her own minimalist bible. I think it's about time we discovered how she got on. Was it way too easy? Was it a little too tough? Can anything be too difficult for a female entrepreneur who's boldly created an industry-challenging company?

Luckily, we're all realists here. Each step that someone takes toward lowering their impact on the planet is one to be commended, even if all it involves is cutting a little spending here and there or taking a pile of unworn clothes to the local charity shop.

Words: James Bates-Prince
My Year as a Minimalist |

You lived with one and two other people at times last year. How hard has it been to drag the non-believers with you on your clutter-free quest?

Tara Button: It is always a compromise – it has to be. People are different, and there’s no point imposing your will on other people. For the most part I’ve been really lucky to be living with a natural minimalist – my fiancé really couldn’t really give a crap about actual stuff. The only thing he’s a mass consumer of is media; he lives for stories, comedy, culture. If it was just up to me, maybe I'd have thrown out the widescreen TV... but then he might have thrown me out. The only slight struggle we still have is with his little sort of detritus clutter – you know, like dead pens, stationery, other little nick-knacks. But that's just about tidying really.

When it's not just a couple, when there’s a third or fourth person, it’s naturally more difficult. It can be pretty tough just to work out whose stuff is whose, and I'm not keen on moving stuff around I don't own. I’d never want to feel like I’m imposing something upon an unwilling participant. A great time to approach decluttering is actually when a housemate leaves or when you move house yourself. It’s a great opportunity to take stock.

How has running a business made it more difficult to keep your pledge?

TB: Well, the nature of the business means that, luckily, it's constantly on my mind. I do find myself having less and less time and that can definitely lead to more impulse-driven shopping. I think it's a lot like grocery shopping when you're hungry – you go in for a tin of soup and come out with a Twix multi-pack and a great big bag of Doritos. When there is something that I think I do need to add into my life, for the business or at home, I really try and carve out some time to make a focused decision about it. Get it right now and I'm saving myself time further down the road.

So you've managed to avoid impulse shopping all year?

TB: [Looks to the ceiling, laughs furtively]. Well, the other day I did buy this kneeling chair. It basically shares the weight of sitting between my knees and bum. I was in pain; the chair in my writing room is crazy uncomfortable, and I was just thinking of my poor back. I might not have looked into it as much as I should have, but I wanted to make the pain go away. I mean, it’s arriving in a few days so I can update you, but usually I’d have put more time into it.

I think we can let you off. How about at Christmas  did you manage to avoid giving throwaway stuff?

TB: Hmm. Well, that's a downside of running a business, writing a book and planning a wedding at the same time. My time is so squeezed that even with the best will in the world things do get left to the last minute. I have to really fight that. I now set up birthday alerts to make sure I have enough time to really think about what I want to give them. I would say I did well on the whole, but as it got closer to Christmas I was left with whatever delivered soonest, what shops were local. So maybe there were a couple of things that were sub-par.

You’ve also got to be wary of pushing your agenda on other people. When I was looking for a present for my little niece, I found something I knew she’d absolutely love. I know her really well and she’s always been obsessed with dressing her toy dolls, so when I found this sweet fashion designer set I had to get it. It was filled with fairly disposable little bits of plastic, most likely won't be remembered in five years and definitely wouldn't be classed as BuyMeOnce. But I was right to go for it – it turned out to be her favourite present. And no, I didn't ask her myself! If she gets lots of joy and use out of it then it’s worth it.

I should really make clear that was an exception though! I got my nephew a One World Futbol and a goal; he’s just three, but it should last him for years and years.

That's cute. What about the other way around  did you manage to prevent friends and family from piling on things you don't need?

TB: Luckily, my family are quite aware of my opinions… now. I think it does give them a certain bit of stress – I’m definitely harder to buy for. Having said that, this year everyone did well – stuff off the BuyMeOnce site is a bit of a safe bet for me! In the future I might make a point of saying that I’d be super happy to be taken out for dinner, receiving experiences over objects. Actually, something I’m especially excited about is the gift from my parents. They’ve given me money to put towards building the perfect BuyMeOnce bike.

Has there been anything that you were ready to discard that's managed to make it's way back into your life?

TB: No, I don't think so. [Pauses and gazes into the distance]. Well, actually – there was a denim jacket that I bought... well, a long time ago. I stopped wearing it because I felt it was too casual; something about it didn’t feel like me any more. But I just put it on one day a few months back– I was cold and it was close – and my fiancé really liked it. It was surprising, and I looked at it with fresh eyes. It’s a handy object that fills the gap when its too warm to have a proper jacket and too cold for a tee. It took someone else's opinion to make me realise that.

Is there an argument to just hold back a little when you're doing a big Marie Kondo-style clear out?

TB: No – still be ruthless. I kept that jacket through a cull or two so there was always something in it. I got rid of over half of my clothing last year, and I don’t miss any of it. I don’t know if I can even picture those pieces any more.

Does it help to have someone there on your side when you're having that one big declutter?

TB: I made 99.9% of the decisions myself, but if I was in a quandary it was nice to have my fiancé to call on. The other way around – maybe I was more involved when we culled his wardrobe. He knew he wanted to cull but needed a little push. We decided he'd have five vetoes on clothes he really ought to be chucking but had an attachment too. He was happy with that and looks a lot better for it.

If we all weren’t being judged every day, I think we might all end up dressing in the same casual outfit all the time. When you love someone, you might have to accept that they come with a beaten-up Goonies t-shirt. If I were to give advice on how to cull, I’d say bring someone over who’s supportive without being overbearing – you need to be in charge, but having someone emotionally comforting to have a break with, have a drink with – that's great. 

Do you feel like it's all paid off? Has your mind felt that bit clearer without so much stuff around?

TB: Definitely. It's such a joy to open a drawer and see what's in it. It saves you time and helps you to become organised. If you have 85 bits of Tupperware, matching the lids is nigh impossible. If it's five then you stand a chance. Having space on the surfaces and finding a home for everything gives you more of a rhythm in your domestic life, and you’re stopped from going into a spiral of messiness.

Checking the Checklist


  • i do not need a bread machine

  • i do not need a waffle maker

  • i do not need more than 4 pots

  • i do not need more than 1 frying pan

  • i do not need matching mugs

  • i do not need a smoothie maker

Tara's ransomed Tassimo pleading for it's life. Our ruthless founder will offer no mercy.

Tara's ransomed Tassimo pleading for it's life. Our ruthless founder will offer no mercy.


I actually discovered more things I didn't need in the kitchen. My fiancé and I had a glorious cutlery clean out, and now every time I open my cutlery drawer I feel a little rush of happiness. We got rid of all the wobbly stuff and the pieces with dodgy rust spots – all of the stuff that just got left in the drawer. We’d also managed to accumulate a distressing amount of disposable cutlery from the takeaway. I’ve since resolved to specifically ask for no cutlery or chopsticks to be put in the bag.

I cut down hugely on the amount of baking items I had, which cleared out half a cupboard. I still have everything I need to make a decent cake; I just don’t have everything I would need to launch my own bakery.

Sometimes when you get into a hobby such as cake baking, you can go overboard with the gadgets and gizmos that go with it. Similar to buying an expensive set of golf clubs before the first lesson. To get around this, if at all possible, borrow the equipment you need for the first few months of your hobby. Only then make the expensive commitment.

We’ve recently had a coffee maker crisis. Our Tassimo takes these really non eco-friendly plastic pods that can’t even be recycled. I’ve decided to hold the coffee maker ransom until the company comes up with a better solution.

Wasn’t there a smoothie maker suspiciously sitting in your house most of last year?

Well after saying I wouldn’t buy a smoothie maker, my flatmate was given a NutriBullet and we all got hooked on morning smoothies. When we moved out, my fiancé bought us our own. We know that we will use it because we have used it for several months now, so it’ll be a good investment going forward.s

When looking back on this list, I laughed because just last week I was thinking it would be nice to have matching mugs. Sometimes it can be tempting to buy things for a life you don’t really have. I might have friends over to dinner, but rarely for coffee. They're also the kind of friends who will find more joy in my “Don’t Let the Muggles Get You Down Mug” than a matching set of elegant china.

It's the circle of shoes - and they all move Tara.

It's the circle of shoes - and they all move Tara.

  • i do not need a watch

  • i do not need any more than 8 pairs of shoes (trainers, summer flats, winter flats, flip flops, heeled, winter boots, hiking boots, wellies, slippers)

  • i do not need more than a capsule wardrobe


I’ve gained a ring (an engagement ring) and bracelet since writing this piece. My friends and family know better than to buy me bits of jewellery now, but when my sister-in-law saw a bracelet with the symbol of my new start-up on it, she rightly thought I’d love it.

Tara's Jewellery

These extra pieces add a little bit more stress (when I thought I'd misplaced the ring) and extra thought to my day. However, they represent my love and purpose, and they complete the button necklace I wear everyday which symbolises my identity.  To have them on my person reminds me of what’s important.

I’ve been wearing my delicious winter boots every day since it started to get cold, and I’m so grateful for them. They go well with everything, have a heel high enough to give my short frame a boost, but I can walk for miles in them without getting sore.

I used to have a real shoe fetish, so it might surprise some people to know that that I’m not interested in having one in every style and colour; I just don't feel that impulse anymore. 

  • i do not need a games console

  • i do not need a desktop computer

  • i do not need a landline

  • i do not need any dvds

  • i do not need a sat nav


My technology use hasn’t changed at all in the last year, although my iPhone screen broke twice. Once was my fault, the next time it just died. My fiancé and I started debating about whether our future kids would be allowed a games console. I never had one growing up, but he did and he sees it as a bonding experience as much as an anti-social, brain-rotting escape. I’ll let you know what we decided in eight or nine years' time.

  • i do not need any more cushions

  • i do not need to change my interior "look" constantly

  • i do not need friends' freebies that don't fit in my home

  • i do not need decorative tat that has no meaning to me

  • i do not need any 'seasonal' decor e.g. halloween cushions

  • i do not need more musical instruments than my guitar & piano

  • i do not need any more gym equipment

  • i do not need any magazines (unless work related)

  • i do not need any massage, exfoliation or pampering gadgets

  • i do not need any makeup other than my staple 5 (mascara, eyeshadow, concealer, lipstick, perfume)

  • i do not need any hair products other than shampoo, conditioner and serum

  • i don't need any nail care other than clippers, file, remover, and my favourite colour


I haven’t broken any of my vows on my furniture, beauty or leisure list other than borrowing a medicine ball from my sister-in-law. I have gone on to use it every week since so it’s a keeper. 

I’ve tried to go one step further and become more zero waste with my beauty regime. My deodorant, shower gel, face wash and conditioner are all unpackaged in solid form, and I now use bamboo flannel rounds to remove my makeup which work wonderfully. One side exfoliates while the other is silky soft.

Gratuitous picture of Prim, Tara's cunning cat.

Gratuitous picture of Prim, Tara's cunning cat.

So overall, not bad I reckon. Perhaps one or two slip ups at a push, and plenty of new things to add to the minimalist cart going forward. Is there anything else you think Tara or BuyMeOnce ought to be cutting out on? Let us know in the comments – we'd love to hear how you approach the problem of stuff.

For more of our latest

Breaking In: A Change of the Guard in the Bootmaking World

Shoe giant Timberland long stood as a bastion of quality within the throwaway world of fashion. As its standards have slipped, industry rivals refuse to pick up the slack. The mainstream of the shoe industry is banking on customers accepting a new normal. But durable, affordable and accessible boots are out there  if you know where to look.

Words: James Bates-Prince
Breaking In: A Change of the Guard in the Bootmaking World & 8 Sustainable Men's Boots Brands |

It ain't like the good old days. Wasn't like this when I was a kid. They don't make 'em like they used to. This tired cry, exclaimed by generation after generation while demanding a return to an imagined past, is especially prosaic as 2016 draws to an end. Make America great again. Take back control. Squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

But sometimes the stereotype rings true. The forward march of technology has certainly made consumer goods cheaper, added bells and whistles and provided an attractive glossy sheen where there was once an ugly unkempt surface. And durability has been repeatedly, consciously squandered. We all know about this phenomenon with electronics – the light bulb conspiracy, irreparable washing machines. But it's happening in more traditional manufacturing too; it's happening right under our feet.

Photo: Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

Ad run by Timberland in 1979.

Endurance has never been a niche concern in the shoe industry. While the fast-fashion major label shoe game perches capriciously atop a glitter ball, a myriad of honest and high quality boot makers have lain cosily away from the show, content only to peer at the eccentricities within. Spending hundreds of dollars on new shoes every year is a luxury most cannot afford, and boot makers used to be keenly aware of this fact. Companies that now stand as industry behemoths often started up solely on the back of one person's fiery will to improve on their own failing shoes.

For decades, the traditional American work boot was the reserve of the traditional American worker. Well built, affordable for the duration, effortlessly classic in look. Manufacturers that could only make their name locally in the 50s and 60s started to encounter interest from further afield as whispers began to seep out about these high quality, ingeniously designed and affordable leather boots. They found they had the opportunity to expand. Rapidly. Timberland is a classic example, the alpha male of the boot world that brusquely manoeuvred itself to the front of the litter. Now the name leaps off the tongue – that classic yellow boot immediately recognisable and associated with durability and style. An American icon.

The image isn’t really a lie, but it’s not the truth either. The story of Timberland is a mirror for the wider footwear industry. It was 1952 when the ambitious shoemaker Nathan Swartz bought a share in a Boston manufacturer, the Abington Shoe Company. The company grew – but the point of no return would come 20 years later.  "It all began in the early 70s when Sidney Swartz noticed that the American "working man" had a genuine need for durable leather boots that kept them dry while outdoors," says Chris Pawlus, Timberland's creative director. "So he made one with wheat-coloured waterproof leather… and it caught on pretty fast."

Don't take even the most expensive Timberlands on a hill walk. Photo: Jan, BuyMeOnce reader.

Don't take even the most expensive Timberlands on a hill walk. Photo: Jan, BuyMeOnce reader.

Chris’ words were spoken in 2013, but the aims he articulated aren’t a fanciful vision of the past. Timberlands were built to be a durable and waterproof boot for workers. Any shelf life beyond that may have been hoped for late at night, but it was unanticipated. The road to success was paved not with outrageous marketing campaigns or vacuous publicity stunts, but with the quality and elegance of design. The yellow boot bloomed and flourished, sales ballooning throughout the 80s in Europe before rising into the stratosphere in the early 90s. Customer service took a hit and production had to be moved, yet customers remained happy with the quality. But something was beginning to change.

The limited lifetime guarantee that once adorned the boots became a one-year guarantee. The majority of their manufacturing moved from the USA to factories in China and the Dominican Republic. Timberland began to reposition itself as a fashion brand that could lean on its reputation for durability and gamble on the company name, happy to be better than the worst rather than the best of the best. The materials could be switched out for more affordable, less refined alternatives. The stitching didn't need to be so careful, did it? By the time Timberland sold itself to international apparel conglomerate VFC in 2011, some of the quality was gone. Soon, high quality ceased to be a target at all. The new aim was laid out clearly by VFC: double Timberland’s revenue towards a projected £3.1 billion in 2019.

Handmaking a new member of the Redwing Heritage collection.

Handmaking a new member of the Redwing Heritage collection.

The news that Timberland is no longer a name in durability won’t be news to the canniest of you. Even without ever having bought a pair of their shoes, you tend to assume a drop in quality as a company grows. The road to success seems to be paved with broken morals and compromise in every walk of life. Boots are no exception.

Even the honourable brands have found their standards slipping. BuyMeOnce has received dozens of recommendations for Redwing, Minnesotan boot makers with a heritage that stretches into the 19th century. This time ten years ago, they were 100% manufactured in the USA using leather from the tannery that they privately own and carried a limited lifetime guarantee. Today? With the exception of their heritage collection, manufacturing has moved to China to cut costs and quality and hike up profits. The USA-made collection is still genuinely great for reliable casual wear, but you're paying fashion prices. You're getting a little less bang for your buck. The lifetime guarantee has been reduced to 12 months, and for every recommendation we receive, a warning isn't far behind.

R.M. Williams, an Australian icon in boot-making, has one of the richest and most genuine backstories anywhere in the manufacturing world. Reginald Murray was born in 1908 and left home for a life in the outback at age thirteen. He learned leather working with a saddle maker, and he learned boot making through trial and error. When you’re let down in the outback, it matters a good deal more than in suburban Adelaide. The soul was there and the company was built around it, piece by piece, becoming globally renowned and gained near legendary status for those who didn't live down under. A lifetime guarantee, free fixing, reliably outstanding quality. Amazing stuff – and Louis Vuitton thought so too when he purchased R.M. Williams in 2013. Now you’ll get a 6-month guarantee. They'll still fix your boots, but a full resole will set you back $150. Take a look at their website; it doesn’t take long to realise that you’re looking at a fashion brand.

Dr Martens For Life boots. Grab them while you can.

Dr Martens For Life boots. Grab them while you can.

Dr Martens remain a BuyMeOnce brand, and their “For Life” range is a proud beacon of lifetime assured quality in the shoe world. But even that isn’t safe. Where there once were eight shoes available in the range, only two options remain. Dr Martens have strongly denied to us that they’re gently phasing the brand out, but one wonders how long it will be before the last built for life boot disappears from the shelf. If you have a spare moment, give Dr Martens a ring or an email. Perhaps they'll tell you something different.


The BuyMeOnce boot is out there - just don’t try to look for a long guarantee. In the last 10 years, company after company have shed their policy or reduced it to a year or less. It’s sad to say, but being a bit of a hipster often pays off – you need to find brands before they’re cool, companies that are still small enough to keep their manufacturing at home, their supply chain under their noses and the quality under
control. In general, look for a Goodyear welt construction for toughness and easy repairs, while following the shoe care guide offered by the company. If your boot ever does break, your first port of call should be a local cobbler - it will probably be cheaper and cut unnecessary air miles.

Of course, there is the odd exceptional large company without a tainted reputation too. We may as well lead off with everyone's favourite:

These boots have sold out every winter since 2011 because LL Bean refuses to outsource production. Probably best to grab yours early!

These boots have sold out every winter since 2011 because LL Bean refuses to outsource production. Probably best to grab yours early!


LL Bean stands apart as an international company, with a reputed name, that hasn't felt the need to sell out or compromise. Founded in 1912, their history is as long and storied as any shoemaker out there; one key difference is that they're still privately owned, in touch with L.L.'s heritage.

The demand for Bean Boots has cycled up and down during the hundred years we’ve [been] making it. We don’t go out of our way to find those trends.

Their boot has become famous in it's own way. It's esoterically strange and functional look gradually forced itself into the public consciousness, and the ugly duck boot came of age at the beginning of this decade. It's still no swan mind you, but the comfort these things provide goes way beyond an insole. With an unmatchable, unconditional lifetime guarantee, LL Bean stand by their boots like no other manufacturer.

Thorogood - worn in, not worn out.

Thorogood - worn in, not worn out.


Arguably the best value out there for mid-range, built-to-last American boots. USA made and Goodyear welted, Thorogood's heritage work boots won't let you down. Our personal favourite is the 6-inch Moc Toe work boot, but it's in close competition with their excellent 8-inch style. They're available fitted for men and women, so check them out now.


With a heritage going back to 1901, Chippewa’s have begun to escalate in popularity over the last ten or so years. Priced just above the Thorogoods, their range represents another great value option for some hardcore durability with a slightly different styling. Do check out Chippewa’s site proper for their full range – but we’re showcasing the LL Bean Katahdin below.

These beauties are actually built by Chippewa and outsourced. It’s the perfect combination; the quality and look of a heritage American bootmaker with the legendary customer service of LL Bean.


If you're prepared to stump up a bit more cash for something to last you as long as any shoe reasonably can, White's USA-made boots are as solid as they come. You can find ready-to-order versions if you're not fussed on the fit, but we recommend taking advantage of their custom builds. It's an investment without a doubt. It's up to you to judge if you're going to get the use out of them, but for heavy wearers these beauts are unmatched.

You get what you pay for with Viberg. Photo: Pinterest

You get what you pay for with Viberg. Photo: Pinterest


Tracing back their lineage to the Normandy landings of the Second World War, these Victorian made boots are an unmissable entry from Canada onto this list. The look has been updated, and they now find themselves at the apex of both style and durability. This updated brown leather pair is detailed with neat cap-toes and has Goodyear-welted rubber soles, which are famed for their superb traction, even on wet surfaces. Not for everybody – but if you’re looking to spend $600 on a stylish and hard-wearing boot, this is the one to go for.

The Vegan options

It’s unfortunate that leather is the ultimate shoe material when it comes to durability. In the new year we’ll be publishing an in depth piece discussing the environmental impact of leather, and the clash of ethics that occasionally emerges when buying for life.

These options don’t hit the built-for-life heights of the aforementioned leather models (although we’d definitely still place them above Timberland). But they smash it out of the park on environmental credentials and business ethics.

Dr Martens vegan 1460 Boot. Photo: Pinterest

Dr Martens vegan 1460 Boot. Photo: Pinterest

Dr Martens 1460 For Life

No lifetime guarantee here but these are as heavy duty as Vegan boots come. A BuyMeOnce brand with a great ethical offering.

Wills Vegan Work Boot

Wills Vegan Work Boot

Wills Vegan Shoes Work Boot

British boot maker Wills Vegan Shoes have come up with this stunning faux-leather, water resistant boot. Unbeatable on looks, all reports we’ve heard suggest they’ll go the distance. At just $110 it's  an attractive price too - just be sure to look after them carefully to maximise that value.

Bourgeois Boheme Shaun Black

Bourgeois Boheme Shaun Black

Bourgeois Boheme

Coming in a little more on the expensive side, Bourgeois Boheme offers a great alternative for a brogue, performing best in the city rather than every and anywhere. With split toe seam detailing, their Black Shaun is comfortable and waterproof. This vegetarian shoe is made of 100% animal-free materials and ethically produced in Portugal.

Purge the Plastic: The Detriment of Food Packaging & How to Shop More Sustainably

Words: Amanda Saxby
Purge the Plastic: The Detriment of Food Packaging & How to Shop More Sustainably


Between California and Japan, beginning only miles off of the coast of North America, floats a five metre-deep concentrated soup of microplastic and debris. Albatrosses circle the trash, dipping down to snatch up small red micropellets indistinguishable from food; turtles trundle through the murky stew swallowing whole plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish; and a ghost net ensnares a small pod of seals. This is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a 1.4 million mile square site at the centre of the North Pacific Gyre, and it’s slowly killing our marine life and ocean food chain.

What’s more, there are an additional four ocean garbage patches in other gyres around the world. And we’ve known about them since 1997. So what have we been doing? How did this happen?

Every time we tie up our empty Keurig pods, disposable solo cups, and takeaway wrappers in a plastic bag and send it off to landfill, we’re making the patch bigger. Out of the 311 million metric tons of plastic the world produces every year, 10 percent makes its way to the oceans. And the worst bit is that once it’s there, we can’t do anything about it. Plastic is non-biodegradable; it photodegrades. This means that despite the length of time it sits in landfill or in the ocean, plastic will continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it will never fully decompose. These microscopic plastic particles sit in the ocean and soak up toxic chemicals, get sucked up by filter feeders and threaten our entire food chain.

But plastic isn’t only endangering our oceans. Plastic production causes a myriad of other environmental issues including carbon emissions and excessive oil usage and energy consumption. Around 4 percent of the world’s oil is used in plastic manufacturing and approximately 1 to 5 ounces of carbon dioxide is released per 1 ounce of plastic during production. Given that the world produces 311 million tons of plastic every year, that means we’re releasing 311 million to 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year as well. While that number may seem like peanuts next to the 35.7 gigatons of CO2 leached into the atmosphere in 2015, plastic production remains a critical contributor to greenhouse gases.


If you’re stunned by this imagery and these figures, you are not alone. The birth of the zero waste lifestyle in the early 2000s was triggered by these environmental issues. At its core, living zero waste is the practice of creating as little trash as possible in your daily life. This involves buying unpackaged foods, upcycling and thrift shopping, creating DIY beauty and cleaning products and rejecting unnecessary items.

The zero waste lifestyle depends on the pyramid of six R’s:

Refuse to buy products you don’t need, are harmful to humans or the planet, that you can make yourself or come in plastic packaging.

Reduce the amount of things you use and purchase, including takeaway meals in plastic and styrofoam containers.

Reuse products and containers repeatedly instead of buying disposable items.

Repurpose items you already have by upcycling them into something new.

Recycle only when you have no other option and before you throw it in the bin.

Rot/compost or incinerate food and other waste where you can instead of sending it to landfill.

Supermarket packaging is one of the top contributors of plastic waste. Plastic shopping bags, cellophane-wrapped produce, biscuits packed in plastic trays and covered in plastic casing – the amount of plastic we consume on a daily basis rises annually and we do little to curb it. We need to reassess how we buy food to initiate a positive change for the environment, for ourselves and for our children.


The amount of plastic food packaging and the damage it’s effected on our environment has ignited a secondary movement: unpackaged grocery shopping. It began in the UK. In November of 2007, Catherine Conway founded Unpackaged, a small shop in Islington, London that sold food and other products package-free. Unpackaged was the first of its kind, and it sparked a slow-paced trend across Europe with more zero waste shops popping up in Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany over the next seven years. In 2012, in.gredients launched in Austin, Texas, becoming America’s first zero waste store, and Canada’s Zero Waste Market opened in Vancouver, BC just last year.

The story of Unpackaged opens with an objection. In 2006, Conway was irritated with how much packaging she was disposing of after shopping, so she decided to build a better solution. “There was no ‘zero waste’ movement [in 2006],” she begins. “No one was talking about the Waste Hierarchy or Circular Economy. Now it’s much more common, but back then there was very little for me to base the shop on other than the idea in my head.” But the idea was persistent. With the launch of the 400 square foot Islington shop in 2007, Conway was able to turn her unpackaged shopping dreams into reality. They sold over 700 different bulk foods and refillable products which customers could purchase in reusable tared containers.

Customer response to Unpackaged in the first five years was incredible. “[Early adopters] were very receptive to the idea,” Conway recalls. “The other part of our customer base, people who didn’t necessarily know they wanted to refill, were still willing to understand the concept and listen to us communicate the benefits to them.” The public were beginning to jump on board the Unpackaged train – a customer survey revealed that over 60 percent believed shopping with Unpackaged made them think about how their food is packaged and refuse overly packaged products in other shops. In 2012, Conway moved Unpackaged to a larger facility and opened a restaurant bar to supplement rent costs.

Fortunately, zero waste grocery shopping seems to be catching globally. 2011 welcomed America’s first package-free grocery store, in.gredients. Joshua Blaine, who has been involved with the store since 2012 and stepped into management in 2013, claims that in.gredients and similar stores are crucial as a model for how things should be done.

“[The grocery industry] is inherently wasteful on so many levels,” he says during interview. “Our store creates a sustainable scenario and a player that represents a way to move the zero waste conversation forward.” in.gredients seeks to amplify the message of food waste and get people thinking about their waste by providing people with alternative options.

“Nothing like us exists in Canada,” says Brianne Miller, founder of Zero Waste Market, who recently pioneered zero waste grocery shopping in Vancouver last year. “We performed a lot of market research before opening – our customers want a solution to the complications and inconvenience of shopping zero waste.”

All three experts agree that inconvenience is a prevailing factor when consumers choose to forgo zero waste shopping. “People don’t have time to drive to several different places to shop,” Miller expresses. Instead, they want a one-stop shop. A place they can go and get everything they need for the following week. This is the service stores like Zero Waste Market, Unpackaged and in.gredients are trying to provide. But being completely package-free does present its challenges.

“For the first year and a half [in.gredients] was entirely package-free,” Blaine says, “but we had to step back and reevaluate our ethos due to consumer demand.” The in.gredients manager claims that while their customers appreciated their original zero waste plan, they were more likely to purchase conveniently packaged goods. In 2014, in.gredients re-marketed and greatly reduced their bulk foods to accommodate packaged products, such as 6-packs of canned craft beer from local breweries.

“We originally had craft beer and wine on tap so our customers could refill their growlers,” Blaine explains. But this presented three challenges: customers had to remember to bring their growlers, the refill was a higher price point than a pack and the store could only provide a limited selection on tap. in.gredients’ platform now focuses on sustainable business practices, providing Austin’s community with locally made food and products and getting their community involved with the store through formal and informal gatherings.

Conway’s story ends similarly; Unpackaged closed its doors in January 2014. “It was heartbreaking, but it enabled me to rethink the future direction of Unpackaged,” she says. Conway knew that supermarket chains accounted for 75 percent of grocery sales in the UK, so to make any real environmental change she would have to restructure. Conway continues, “The advantage to not having our own shop was that I could really look at how to work within a mainstream, and it was this that led to our collaboration with Planet Organic.” Unpackaged now operates as a self-service bulk division within the Planet Organic chain in London. Conway hopes to transfer this concept into the larger supermarket chains across the UK in the near future.

However, despite her predecessors' restructured business models and her own entrepreneurial challenges, Miller remains optimistic about Zero Waste Market’s future. Through the success of her pop-up markets, country-wide zero waste Facebook groups, support from the Vancouver community and various grants and media coverage, Miller believes that “people are ready” for an exclusively zero waste shop.


So how can we make the switch to more sustainable grocery shopping? We can start by buying more food in bulk. Bulk foods average 89 percent cheaper than packaged goods since consumers are only paying for the product; there aren’t any extra costs associated with fancy packaging, production or distribution, which keeps money in our wallets. It also helps reduce packaging waste and prevents more plastic from going to landfill and polluting our oceans. Furthermore, when we purchase the exact amount of food we need in bulk instead of buying a large packet, we decrease our food waste as well.

North America has plenty of bulk shopping options. There are stores that specialise in bulk foods, such as Bulk Barn, Bulk Nation and Whole Foods. Even larger supermarket chains such as Sobey’s, Overwaitea, Wegmans and Safeway have sections of their stores dedicated to bulk foods. Sadly, bulk only yields about 3 percent of the average North American grocery store’s daily profit.

Miller shared a few objections she’s heard consumers give to avoid buying from the bulk section. “Cross contamination is a big one,” she explains. “With open containers, you can’t be sure allergens haven’t been in contact with the product.” Reservations about products’ cleanliness and freshness and the convenience of grab-and-go packets also made the cut.

“Remembering to bring things [containers, reusable bags, etc.] is an issue,” says Blaine. Conway has been working on an innovative solution to this problem – Unpackaged is developing a text messaging service that will remind patrons to bring in their reusable containers and bags.

While bulk food shops may not be so readily available in the UK, there are plenty of other options to help you shop plastic packaging free:

  • Farmer’s markets are a fantastic alternative to supermarkets. Not only can you purchase all of your groceries package-free, but you’re also supporting local farmers, artisans and makers in your community. Most cities have markets open year round – we’ve done some of the heavy leg work for you below.
  • Getting your milk delivered in recyclable glass bottles significantly decreases the amount of plastic cartons sent to landfill. It’s also convenient to have this staple delivered directly to your door.
  • Buy your meat, poultry and fish from your local butcher or fishmonger instead of in styrofoam and clingfilm wrapped packets at the supermarket. Most shopkeepers are generally accommodating about wrapping up your purchase in beeswax wrap or a Stasher bag if you request it.
  • Rain barrels are a sustainable alternative to plastic water bottles. If you live in a particularly rainy area and have some outdoor space, you should look into installing one. There are various DIY tutorials available online.
  • Cooking whole foods at home produces much less packaging and food waste than takeaway, dining out or reheating a freezer meal. Take a moment right now and reflect on why you don’t cook at home. Are you too busy? Here’s a long list of 15 minute meals. Do you not know how to cook? There are so many different ways to learn. Universities, colleges and cookery shops offer cheap cooking classes; you can ask a relative or friend to teach you; try watching Food Network, search YouTube or read a cookbook; and if all else fails, just get stuck in and try. You may be surprised at how well you do.
  • Finally, do a little research. Zero waste Facebook groups are a clever way to snag new ideas and places to shop from like-minded folks. Check if there’s one available in your city and consider joining the conversation.


Catherine Conway
Unpackaged, Founder

Catherine is an activist and social entrepreneur who set up Unpackaged in 2006, having worked in the private, public and NGO sector. With nearly a decade promoting Unpackaged and refilling in retail, Catherine is at the forefront of the zero waste movement. 

Joshua Blaine
in.gredients, Store Manager

Josh has been a core member of the in.gredients team since April 2012 and the store manager since 2014. in.gredients champions a different kind of food system: one that focuses on locally produced goods, less food-related packaging and waste and more community/customer involvement.

Brianne Miller
Zero Waste Market, Founder

Brianne is a marine biologist who is passionate about ocean conservation. She’s on a mission to find practical solutions to some of the many problems that the oceans face, including plastic pollution, overfishing and habitat degradation. With Zero Waste Market, Brianne hopes to empower customers to think about the impacts of their food choices and how to reduce food waste by buying only what they need.