One retailer seizing the opportunity from the rise in awareness of plastic pollution is Andrew Thornton, owner of Thornton’s Budgens in Belsize Park, North London.
On the 8th of November 2018, Thornton’s Budgens launched plastic-free zones in its store, after converting 1,825 product lines to non-plastic packaging within a tight 10-week time frame.
The convenience industry guru acknowledges the shifting consumer mindset towards plastic and its impact on the environment and growing pressure to go ‘plastic-free’. Plastic-free is now a top criteria for shoppers’ choice of store, whereas 12 months ago it wasn’t even on the list, Thornton says.
With the assistance of international campaign group, A Plastic Planet, he began making slow and subtle changes two months prior to the public launch and received positive feedback along the journey. When the 'Cutting Out Plastic' branding went fully live, it cranked up to extraordinary levels and he has subsequently been inundated with emails from all around the country. “It’s really caught people’s imagination,” he says. “I’ve not had one single person say, “alright then or why have you done that?”.”
For Thornton it was Blue Planet II that changed the consumer zeitgeist. “Blue Planet II was the shifter,” he says. “There’s been lots of coverage for a long time but because David Attenborough is so respected and the viewership is so broad, it really hit people,” he says.
Thornton reveals he’s recently participated in a couple of school assemblies and that when he asked the children if they had seen the Blue Planet II programme, all of their hands shot up in the air. Then, he asked if they understood the programme’s message. Their synchronous reply was succinct: ‘plastic is killing our seas’.
While it’s still early days, Thornton is encouraged by the fantastic customer response in-store and reports he has recorded a substantial uplift in sales of plastic-free products plus new customers are coming into the store to boot.
He claims the initiative has two clear aims: to give customers what they are asking for and to show the big retailers, globally, that it’s not difficult to do. Plus, it makes good business sense and, for the meantime, brings competitive advantage too.
He takes issue with the objections that are traditionally trotted out about going plastic- free.
Cost, for one, is a red herring, he states. “In three to six months time, we will have done well financially out of it - it’s not a novelty effect, I don’t sense that’s the case.”
Two, recycle more is not a realistic alternative, he says. Only 9% of plastic gets recycled and it can only be down cycled.
Three, plastic-free will increase food waste. “You take the plastic wrapper off and it reduces shelf life for a day,” he maintains.
Thornton’s Budgens has taken a day off the shelf life of its newly repackaged wild meat products, for example, but simply as a precaution. “If it looks good and smells good, it’s probably fine,” Thornton says, and suggests sell by dates have brought about a disconnection with food.
All three objections are unfounded, he argues. “If we can do this in 10 weeks, then what could Sainsbury’s, Asda or Tesco do or BP and 7 Eleven?”
Thornton said he took inspiration for the move to plastic-free zones from Ekoplaza, which unveiled the world’s first plastic-free aisle in a store in Amsterdam in February 2018. The Dutch supermarket chain had also partnered with the environmental campaigners A Plastic Planet and so it was this group who Thornton turned to for his plan. Personal experience also played a part. In the summer, Thornton was swimming off the coast of Maryland when he stood on a crab shell. His foot became infected and he had to be airlifted to hospital, ending up on a drip. The infection was most likely a result of the plastic and rubbish littering the ocean.
“If I had not been convinced before, that did it,” he says. “I had to do something,” he says.
Conversion to plastic-free has been a learning curve, Thornton states. Product sectors you would imagine to be ‘quick wins’ are far from it. Produce, for instance, has largely been converted to loose but sourcing cucumbers, broccoli and cabbages not encased in plastic is “really difficult”, Thornton explains. To date, 80% of the fruit and veg range is plastic-free. Florette’s compostable packaging, which is currently available in Germany, is coming to the UK and will be adopted by the store, which is currently working on a compostable cellophane for berries.
Organic products, which were previously pre-packed to cope with the self-service checkouts and risk of being put through as non-organic, are now packed in netting made from beech wood production. Fish is now wrapped in wax paper and sealed with the price ticket and cheese has been stripped of its cling filmed exterior and wrapped in wax paper (hard cheese) or cellulose bags (soft cheese). The juice bar, meanwhile, now offers compostable cups.‘It is the beginning of a long journey’ Thornton says ‘we are not plastic free by any means; but we are stepping onto a new road that starts with cutting out plastic wherever we can’.
The store’s wild meat range, which is packed in-store, has been relaunched in sugar cane trays with lids made out of corn starch. Both materials can be used as plastic substitutes, Thornton says. A new range of ready meals from a relatively small supplier is about to launch in plastic-free packing, while the Cook range is being converted too, beginning with the kids’ range.
According to Thornton, A Plastic Planet has been a great resource in this respect and he urges other retailers make contact. Virtually every product the retailer packs itself is now supplied in plastic alternatives and most items have been done at no extra cost - only the sugar cane trays and compostable cups come at a premium but costs should reduce with wider adoption or by introducing a levy on plastic juice bottles, for instance. Thornton will continue working with A Plastic Planet in the next six months, where they hope to double the amount of plastic free skus.
In-store, certified 99% plastic-free products carry the APP Plastic Free Trust Mark. Product categories have also been zoned in areas where the retailer is working on ‘cutting out plastic’. In wine, for example, bottles with plastic corks are merchandised separately from those without, enabling consumers to make their own, informed, purchase decision.
It’s deliberately designed to be crystal clear. “We’ve re-merchandised the whole store to sort out the plastic from the non-plastic so customers know exactly where to go and we’ve gone really crazy on communication,” Thornton says.
Since the initial launch, Thornton’s Budgens is now moving onto other categories such as household. “Bleach is a bit of a challenge but we have shampoo soap in compostable packaging and cloths with zero plastic microfibers in an eco-home section,” Thornton says. There are metal versus plastic lunchboxes, reusable takeaway cups and even plastic-free shoelaces.
“The store looks amazing - better than it’s ever done. The whole fresh produce department is now all loose. Before there was plastic dotted everywhere. It looks so much better,” Thornton says.
“The amount of work people have put in has been extraordinary,” he adds. “I’ve never seen the team so galvanised.”
It all plays into Thornton’s vision to be “the community supermarket that really cares”. He likens the ethos to a play in two parts. In the first act, heart and purpose are introduced into the business, enabling the team to reach their potential. In the second act, the team gets to implement something significant and that will really make a difference.
Cutting out plastic has done just that.
See Andrew talk about the store on Sky News here:
A Plastic Planet (APP) is a grassroots movement launched in January 2017 with a single goal – to turn off the plastic tap. They want to dramatically reduce the use of conventional plastic; especially that used to package our food and drink.
A Plastic Planet created the whole plastic free zones initiative; and for Thorntons Budgens they committed a full time project director to spend 3 months in-store. Andrew Thornton gave APP the authority to work with his team, fast-tracking introduction of new materials and new lines.
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