Among the many things launched at Davos last week was , a new online shopping service that ‘reinvents the milkman’ for the 21st century. Developed by in the US, the store has partnered with a range of major brands to supply goods in attractive re-usable packaging. Customers will order online and have their goods delivered, then the empty tins and tubs will be picked up and taken away for washing and refilling.
It’s quite a major project, with over 300 products from dozens of major brands, and UPS doing the deliveries. New York and a suburb of Paris will be the first to get access to the platform this year, with wider roll-out to come.
There’s something very satisfying about seeing ice cream sold in a sturdy reusable tin instead of a flimsy plastic tub. I imagine it’s a better consumer experience as well as reducing waste. And being particularly solid, that tin is designed to be reused at least 100 times. That’s a lot of ice cream.
When you’re done with the ice cream, you can brush your teeth with toothpaste from a reusable container, something I have searched the shops for in vain.
This is of course nothing new – antique shops will sell you attractive tins with vintage coffee or biscuit branding on them. It’s about time we rediscovered the idea, with added modern convenience.
I do have some hesitations though, symbolised by the fact that it was launched at Davos and that it is Haagen Dazs ice cream in that picture. This is a luxury product. People will presumably subscribe, making it a financial commitment. The price of delivering goods and picking up empties will have to be factored in. There will be a limited range of brands, possibly skewed towards the upper end of the market. The packaging is smart and smacks of ‘premiumisation’, something I’ve written about before.
Organic food is in a similar quandary. It is more expensive and is marketed towards the upper middle classes. Those with tighter budgets can make do with the unhealthier and less sustainable versions. Packaging-free shops, in my experience at least, cater to the same wealthier audience. There’s a shop near us that sells things without packaging – in one of Luton’s posher neighbouring towns, naturally. Despite providing your own tubs and serving yourself, it’s far more expensive.
There are a number of reasons why organic and self-serve foods are more expensive, including economies of scale, so it’s not exactly anyone’s fault. If you have convenient options for both of those things or are in the Loopstore catchment, by all means patronise them. But doing the sustainable thing shouldn’t be a luxury, and so while they are useful intermediate projects, longer term and more comprehensive solutions are still urgently needed.
For example, if Haagen Dazs can make that durable packaging and sell it by subscription, it’s not a huge leap to sell it in supermarkets too. Like the Loopstore, customers could pay a deposit and get it back again. As supermarkets are pressured to do something about packaging, they may be willing to start talking about these sorts of things.
There’s no need to leave it all up to the market either, since plastic pollution is a clear example of market failure. Nobody pays for ocean plastics and plastic pollution, and companies like Coca Cola can keep churning out plastic bottles by the billion without ever taking responsbility for where they end up. If the government acts to ban plastic bottles, Coca Cola will have a solution for you by monday morning.
Britain is umming and ahhing about such a ban, wary of creating new regulations and telling business what to do. But as Loopstore and its wide partnership of brands shows, business is working on this. It’s just not reaching very far, taking the safer option of targeting the upper end of the market. If business and government work together, we can make reusable packaging mainstream much more quickly.