Faye and her husband own two zero-waste stores in the south-west: Zero Exeter, which can be found on Fore Street, and Zero Exmouth, located on Chapel Street in Exmouth. Faye kindly took time out of her busy schedule to talk to RAZZ about the philosophy behind her stores, what it’s been like running the business during the pandemic, and the best ways for people to cut down on their waste.
AW: What was it that inspired you to take the leap, and set up your first zero waste store?
FJM: We used to live in Colombia – my husband’s Colombian – and when we were out there, I was so blown away by how easy it was to choose the exact quantity of produce that you purchased, and how normal that was within the neighbourhoods. My husband told me that it had always been the same way; he’d always been able to go out and just buy 100 or 200 grams of lentils, for example. It helped with affordability, because a lot of the neighbourhoods weren’t affluent places. And it was only really during recent years that the large chains began to import goods that were covered in plastic – but a lot of the Colombian produce was completely plastic-free. They have such an abundance of fruit grown there, plus the lentils and the rice – they all come in huge paper sacks, so we just picked exactly what we wanted.
It wasn’t until we moved home that I realised just how abnormal that was here. And when you did find a similar store within your area, it was really difficult to go with children – because you couldn’t fit the stroller inside. So, we decided that we were going to make a store ourselves, but we knew that it needed to be bigger, it needed to be accessible for people of all ages and all mobilities. I don’t know how you can have a shop today and not have it accessible for people in wheelchairs, or mums and dads who are going in with their children. We designed our stores around that principle. We got a huge inspiration from Colombia, and a huge inspiration from our own kids. So, we designed all the taps [of the produce refill stations] to be higher, and so that everything that is smashable is out of the kids’ reach!
AW: What was the public reaction like when you first opened; did you find that there was a lot of support in the local community?
FJM: Yes, people were really lovely! We’ve never really had a lot of marketing though – just because we did it all ourselves. We designed the whole store ourselves with reclaimed materials, which took up a lot of time. Initially, when we contacted local newspapers to share our story, no-one really shared it! So, it was all done on word of mouth – and I think that made it so much nicer! People were coming in because they’d been recommended by friends, and that was really nice because it was so personal. We have the same customers who came in when we first opened, when we had barely any products. That was because we self-funded the whole project, and we did everything we could to ensure that our products didn’t come in plastic, even if that meant purchasing 25 kilograms instead of 10 kilograms. So that limited our stock straight away, but it ensured that we practised what we preached – and we’ve always stuck to that ethos. And that’s allowed the store to triple in stock since we first opened. We’ve got such an incredible following now – people really stick by us, and they genuinely seem to want to support a local cause and protect the environment.
AW: Do you have many students who support your store? Or do you tend to find that students are more likely to go to supermarkets for convenience?
FJM: You have students who are incredibly eco-conscious, and who are really striving to make a difference. And then you have students who aren’t really aware of environmental issues, and they do go for the most convenient option – but they do seem to be open to a change! A lot of them just don’t realise that we exist. They’ve been really lovely, and it’s so nice to speak to the students now – especially international students, who must be having such a difficult time during lockdown. We always try to make a real effort with students – they get a discount, along with NHS workers, seven days a week, on whatever they want!
AW: I’ve noticed that, during the pandemic, sustainability concerns have taken somewhat of a back-seat due to the increased focus on cleanliness and the economic pressures that are linked to the crisis. For example, right at the beginning of the pandemic, most coffee shops stopped offering take-away coffee in reusable cups. I understand that all businesses have been affected by the pandemic – small businesses especially – but have you found that people are less likely to purchase zero-waste because of the pandemic?
FJM: During the pandemic, we’ve had an 80% decrease in passing traffic, which has obviously negatively affected our sales. But we seem to be growing new customers every week, who find our food section a lot cleaner, a lot more sterilised, and a lot calmer than the big supermarkets. Also, the customers are so respectful with keeping their distance, wearing masks, and sanitising their hands – we’ve said that if people don’t want to wear masks, or if they’re exempt, then we can serve at the door, or do local deliveries. And I think that a lot of our customers have really respected that, and they’ve felt more comfortable and confident that we aren’t just letting anyone in!
AW: Do you think that people in Exeter are doing well at living sustainably, in comparison with people living in other parts of the UK?
FJM: Yes, and no. I think we can do a lot more, as a city. We don’t have compost waste in every house; we don’t even have food waste being collected by the council. And I was raised with food waste bins in Wales, so it was really strange for me to come here, from a tiny town in Wales, to a city in England, to find that food waste isn’t being collected. So, in terms of things like that, I think it could be a lot better. In Exeter, we have, what, over 128,000 residents? And I think as a whole, if our store gets out to as many of those people as possible, and even if they change just one item per week, that could have such a huge impact on the environment. And the council would start to see that reduction in waste – and once they start seeing that (which will save them money), they’ll realise the importance of reducing plastic. A lot of people think that it’s just about recycling – but it’s not, because recycling takes up so many resources, and a lot of districts just send their recycling overseas to developing countries.
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