"What keeps me going are our regular customers who continue to support Gram, and when we get messages from people saying we inspired them to open a similar store or we inspired them to make sustainable changes in their lives."
Welcome to A Good Community, Rowan! As the founder of GRAM, Sweden's first packaging-free store focusing on zero waste – we are super-impressed with what you have created. We initially got in touch after our own plastic-free store experiment. Could you tell us a bit about how the idea of creating GRAM was born?
I was always environmentally conscious but still, I was a typical consumer – buying a couple of new clothes a month, impulse buying things for the home, etc. Not thinking a whole lot about what consumerism meant for my personal impact on the environment.
I then read an article on a woman in New York (Lauren Singer's blog Trash is for Tossers) who could fit two years’ worth of trash in a small glass jar. That was a light bulb moment for me. And from there I started to change my consumer habits in order to create less trash and spit less back out into the world.
So, it started as a kind of life experiment. To see what I could change so my trash and recycling bins didn’t fill up so fast. It worked in some areas of my life (swapping bottles of shampoo for bar soap, using fresh lemon juice to clean the kitchen, shopping second hand, etc.)
But, when it came to food I was constantly frustrated. As consumers, we have very little choice when it comes to shopping with minimal packaging. Supermarkets – where most of us shop are full of plastic wrapped products, so it’s very hard to avoid.
I heard about “zero waste” shops in Germany where everything is sold in bulk, and I went to visit one in Berlin (Original Unverpackt). From here, there was no turning back. Sweden was getting its first zero-waste food shop.
What has been challenging about opening Sweden's first zero-waste food shop, and what inspires you to keep going?
Since we opened 3 years ago just one more physical store has opened plus one delivery service. Compare this to the UK for example, and in that same time period around 200 stores have opened. So, my main frustration is the time the zero waste movement is taking to gain traction here in Sweden.
Most people are surprised that it's like this here, in a country which is usually seen as so forward thinking in terms of sustainability. And it is, but things like our very efficient waste management system makes it seem as if trash doesn't exist and so it doesn't matter how much you produce because it is dealt with.
What keeps me going are our regular customers who continue to support Gram, and when we get messages from people saying we inspired them to open a similar store or we inspired them to make sustainable changes in their lives.
The concept of GRAM is an emphasis of the inextricable link between personal lifestyle and the wellbeing of our environment. What do you think practicing circularity will teach us about the environment and about ourselves?
We have to realise that the stuff we take from the planet has to go back out into the planet in some form or another, and usually the output is harmful.
We can't keep taking, reconstructing and regurgitating. We need to keep materials that we produce in circulation so we use less and spit back less. Nature is not at our service.
Have you witnessed an increase in your community's awareness surrounding these issues, since founding GRAM?
We have some amazing local suppliers whom we work with and that's where we have probably seen the greatest advance in awareness. We often go to a supplier who uses traditional packaging and explain our concept and see if they are interested in collaborating and creating a special solution for us. So, now we have local sweets, normally packaged in single-use plastic, delivered in reusable buckets.
Likewise, we just started a collaboration with a hair product producer who is also sending us their products in reusable drums. It's so great to see these suppliers thinking about their process and making changes, and some of them have adopted these changes into their business with other buyers.
What, in your view, is society’s greatest challenge when it comes to consumption and waste, and what initiatives can we as individuals take to combat this?
A lot of pressure is put on individuals to make better choices and be more sustainable, lower their consumption, choose less packaging, etc. But how can individuals make all these "good" choices if there are so few choices to make? So, it has to go back to business owners and policy makers.
The choices need to be there in the first place so that people can easily make them. This means producers choosing better and less packaging and our society adopting policies such as higher tax on black plastics (which can't be recycled) so they are not used so much.
What initiative do you think could be taken as a community to decrease the amount of waste we produce collectively?
Shared resources instead of individually owned everything! For example, schemes where you can borrow tools, lawnmowers, sewing machines, kitchen equipment, etc.
Buy in bulk – if you don't have a zero waste shop in your area, get together with a group of like-minded people and buy in bulk. When I was a kid, my parents used to buy rice in huge sacks or peanut butter in buckets and me and my sister would help divide it up amongst a group of their friends – maybe that's where my inspiration came from!
What tips would you give to someone who is trying to decrease the amount of waste produced in their home?
Just open your eyes to the alternatives. Choose loose fruit over plastic packed in the supermarket, buy in bulk where you can (as long as it's a product that will keep well), don't be shy to use your own containers when you're in a shop, like for take-away coffee, usually people will be inspired by you rather than being cynical.
Thank you for being part of A Good Community, any last words you’d like to add for the people around the world reading this?
Zero-waste is one way to be more sustainable as an individual, but it's not the only way and in many ways it's not always the most effective way. When you're trying to reduce your impact on the planet you can't be dogmatic or single-minded about one aspect.
It isn't only plastic, it isn't only meat consumption, it isn't only flying. What it is, is complicated. So try to make good choices and put pressure on businesses to provide them and governments to encourage them.
To read more about Rowan's packaging-free grocery store GRAM, located in Malmö Sweden, you can visit their website.
If you haven't already seen it, check out the plastic-free store activist experiment we did in October last year. Together with a dedicated team we spent all night emptying an entire grocery store from all products wrapped in plastic. Early next morning we met with surprised and shocked customers to have a conversation about our collective plastic-dependency. Watch the video here!