How to Start a Zero Waste Shop

Starting a zero waste shop is a growing trend that can benefit the environment and local community, and turn a profit. There are around 200 zero waste shops in the UK. Many of these popped up over the past few years and have become popular, successful, and inspirational to others.

Research suggests just over two-thirds of consumers claim to be zero waste advocates, so now could be the time to fill a gap in the market. Most zero waste stores aim to eliminate or significantly reduce packaging and generate as little waste as possible through their operations. It’s all about sustainability from start to finish.

The growing trend for zero waste shops that sell all sorts of goods means now could be the prime time to open one up. There are many things to consider before opening any business and you should seek professional advice before you start. Use the following tips for a rough idea of how to start a zero waste shop.

woman working in a zero waste shop.

What is a zero waste shop?

A zero waste shop is a store that sells goods and operates sustainably. They sell loose produce to eliminate packaging with customers using their own refillable containers. Many goods are charged by weight or units. Zero waste shops don’t provide plastic bags either, so customers must bring a reusable one.

They will have a destination for excess and expired stock, so it doesn’t go to waste. This could be donating goods to a local food bank or out-of-date food to a nearby animal shelter or farm. Any zero waste shop aims to minimise waste from how the store is run and from consumer activities.

Things to consider before 
setting up a zero waste shop

Setting up a zero waste shop is a great idea when there’s a clear opportunity. It can help reduce packaging waste, offer a more sustainable retail experience, and be a successful business. However, opening a shop of any kind is a big commitment and the same risks as starting any new shop apply.

If you’re serious about beginning a zero waste shop in your area you must think it through thoroughly. There’s no specific order you must follow but you should consider each of the following factors to assess the feasibility of setting up a zero waste shop before you begin:

  • Stock – what will your zero waste shop sell? Most focus on dry foodstuffs like pasta, coffee, and beans that are easy to stock and sell without packaging. Some sell health and beauty products like soap bars without packaging or bulk volumes of washing powder. Other options include stocking ugly food (fruit and veg not accepted by supermarkets), second-hand clothing, or anything else that’s sustainably sourced and generates zero or little waste.
  • Location – research the area where you plan to open a zero waste shop in detail. Consider the demographics in the area (is there a demand for a zero waste shop?), the potential footfall (are there other busy shops nearby), and access (good public transport links?). If you think the area is promising you’ll need to find an empty shop with clear visibility and accessibility.
  • Target market – your target customers will be eco-conscious people who want to reduce waste when shopping. But what types of goods do they buy? Consider if there’s a strong demand for organic or vegetarian food that further focuses on sustainability. Or if people in the area have other options for buying food in a low waste way would setting up a zero waste clothes or beauty shop be better?
  • Competition – when assessing the potential location it’s vital you check out the competition. Review what people can already buy in the area. Are there greengrocers and butchers selling fruit, veg, and meat in low packaging ways? And if there’s already a zero waste food shop in the area it could be time to look elsewhere. Alternatively, see what they do well, struggle with, and if there’s an opportunity to compete or not.
  • Budget – opening a zero waste shop isn’t cheap, even though your packaging costs should be low. Draw up a budget that covers the equipment, shop fitting, staff costs, branding and marketing, stock, rent, legal fees, insurance, cleaning, waste management costs, and other costs. Then think about how you plan to finance your store, such as with a business loan.
  • Suppliers – you’ll need to source suppliers that fit with your sustainable ethos. This includes those that provide no or low packaging for their products and can offer bulk amounts. Plus, they’ll need to supply the products your zero waste store wants to stock. Using local suppliers helps cut down on carbon emissions with reduced transportation.
  • Insurance and legal considerations – starting a zero waste shop follows the same legal considerations as any other type of shop in the UK. You’ll need all the proper insurance in place, must register with HMRC, and ensure all legal processes are followed when employing staff and operating your new shop.
  • Waste management – even though you aim to eliminate waste, it’s almost impossible to completely avoid it. Your shop will require bins for a low level of general waste and dry mixed recycling created on the shop floor. Plus, you must legally have a sanitary waste bin in every toilet within your shop. Any waste your shop creates is commercial waste that must legally be removed by licensed waste carriers. Discover our waste management tips for start-ups.
goods for sale in a zero waste shop.

How to open a 
zero waste shop

Do plenty of in-depth research and if you decide your idea for a zero waste shop is feasible then it’s time to get (more) serious. If you’ve run a business in the UK before then hopefully you have a good idea of what setting one entails. Otherwise, you should seek professional business advice.

There are many steps to opening a zero waste shop, but these are some of the key ones:

  • Create a business plan – every business must have a solid business plan. This outlines the overall idea, and your goals, and demonstrates its feasibility. Most banks, lenders, or other financial backers require a good business plan to convince them to back your idea. Some of the main points your zero waste shop’s business plan should include are a summary of your business idea, the products you’ll sell, your target market, a competitor analysis, sales and marketing strategies, the budget and financial goals/projections, your intended suppliers, and team of staff.
  • Secure financing – unless you’ve got enough of your own funds you’ll likely need some financial backing to start a zero waste shop. Bank and business loans are common but check the repayment terms carefully and shop around. There are sometimes grants available that help, as you don’t have to repay them. Otherwise, angel investors, venture capitalists, and local investors are good options. All will ask to see your business plan and may renegotiate your initial terms.
  • Hire staff – once you’ve got funding and secured premises for your zero waste store you can put some job adverts out for staff (if needed). Your business plan should include how many employees you’ll hire and their wages. Who you hire is up to you, but sourcing locally is always good and ideally people on board with a zero waste lifestyle.
  • Build branding, advertising, and marketing – hopefully, you’ll have an idea for a name and a rough colour scheme already. It should be something that reflects the sustainable and environmentally friendly nature of your shop. It’s always a good idea to use professionals for the best results. Setting up social media accounts is vital in the modern day as is advertising in the local press and using your shop front to advertise your store before it opens.
  • Decide on payment options – many businesses are card only and for a zero waste shop this is an ideal way to operate in a paper-free manner. Set up your payment systems with card machines and QR codes next to items as a way to reduce labels. If you’ll be selling goods online then your online payment system must be sorted too.
  • Plan for excess stock – a key role of many zero waste shops is what they do with items that would otherwise be binned, such as damaged goods or expired foodstuffs. Speak to local charities, food banks, animal shelters, and community groups to see where you can donate or pass on unsold products.
  • Build anticipation – you don’t want to open your doors and find just one man and his dog standing outside. Create a sense of excitement with a marketing and advertising plan in the build-up to your open day. Put up posters in the local area announcing your open date and mention any offers for the first few days or weeks to increase footfall. Posting in local social media groups as well as on your own page helps spread awareness too. You could even get a special guest to open your store.
  • Celebrate the big day – there’s no way to sugarcoat it, the big day will probably be stressful. Still, celebrate getting this far and make a note of any mistakes and opportunities you spot. Take on board feedback from customers and work out ways to improve and grow. It’s an exciting time and if you’ve planned properly your zero waste shop will hopefully be a success!
fruit and veg in wooden boxes on a stall for sale.

What you need when 
starting a zero waste shop

There’s lots of equipment you’ll need when starting a zero waste store to ensure things run smoothly. Some items are similar to what’s required when operating any shop while others are specific to zero waste businesses. Here are some of the main things your new zero waste shop needs:

  • Food dispensers – if you’re going to sell dry food in bulk then effective dispensers are vital. They offer an easy way for customers to fill up their containers without putting too much in by accident. When stocks are running low you simply fill up the food dispenser again, which significantly reduces packaging waste from your shelves.
  • Electronic scales – most food in zero waste shops are priced by weight so having working scales is essential. Ensure these are big enough to accommodate the container sizes your customers are likely to use and that you have enough sets of scales in your store to cope with busy periods.
  • Chalkboards and signs – putting a fold-up chalkboard outside is an easy way to advertise your shop. You can also change what it says each day without wasting paper. Using small chalkboard signs next to items for sale within your shop also eliminates label and paper waste. Plus, it’s simple to change prices when required.
  • Natural displays – reusable displays such as wicker baskets for bread or wooden boxes for clothes and other items provide a sustainable and natural feel to your shop. Think about the layout and how you can minimise waste with your displays.
  • Technology equipment – to operate your shop you’ll need at least one till, a couple of card readers (in case one stops working), CCTV for safety, energy-efficient lighting, and speakers if you’ll be playing music in the store.

Setting up a zero waste shop online

Starting a zero waste shop online follows most of the above steps. However, there’s much more competition as you’ll be entering a wider market as people can order pretty much anything online today. Think about how to differentiate your online zero waste shop from others with some genuine unique selling points (USPs).

Using sustainable suppliers and being able to demonstrate truly zero waste practices are vital. All your products should be delivered with no packaging or at least biodegradable or recyclable packaging. Again, having a transparent plan for how your business manages any waste helps build trust and demonstrates your sustainability.

Explore more business advice

Another big focus for any zero waste shop online is the website. You should still have a website if you have a physical shop, but it might be relatively small and simple, explaining what your shop sells, where it is, when it’s open, and why people should visit. With an online-only store, the website is key.

Use professional web designers and developers to build a site for your zero waste online shop that works. It needs to be attractive, easy to navigate, simple to use, and with a working payment functionality. Look at your competitors to see what works and areas for improvement to build into your site.

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