Sage Community Series: The Soap Dispensary + Kitchen Staples
Welcome to the Sage Community Series, featuring Vancouver's local community of mindful businesses that are purpose-driven in creating positive change in the world with the products and services they provide.
Minding the Gap in Zero-Waste Retail
The future is unpackaged. At least that is what Linh Truong from The Soap Dispensary + Kitchen Staples hopes for.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Linh to learn more about her business and the impact it is making in reducing single-use packaging. It’s a problem worth solving and she’s clearly taking the steps and having the influence to make her mark on mindful consumption.
The following is the dialogue between Linh and me while having coffee at Hayan Mug on February 5, 2019.
On a Mission
What makes your store The Soap Dispensary and Kitchen Staples unique?
We are a bulk refill, zero-waste business, with over 800 bulk items available to refill into people’s containers.
Our first mission is an environmental cause, to reduce single-use plastic waste within the community, reducing plastic pollution. What makes us different from other zero-waste bulk stores, is that we provide the refill service for our customers. Most zero-waste stores are self-service. You go in you and look through the aisles, you weigh your jar then you fill it yourself. In our store, you come in and drop off your containers at the order desk, and our staff will take the order and fill it all for you. So, that is a very distinct difference.
Are there any challenges of operating it as a full-service bulk refill store?
When we opened 7.5 years ago, it was just a tiny space, so we were only focused on soaps and some bath and beauty products. It was a much smaller product range that we offered in bulk. At the time, it seemed like it was safer with less cross-contamination, spillage and waste if we took care of the filling. We could also inspect the container and ensure it was clean. In the years that we have grown in selling food and oils, it's a better business model because people often bring in containers that are not appropriate for refilling. We have an opportunity to educate our customers right at the beginning. It's more efficient and saves time in some ways because people can drop it off and do other errands - it's just an extra service that we can offer.
We try to educate our customers to come and drop off their containers and that we are happy to fill their orders for them. We suggest people come on a weekday or in the morning when we are not that busy. We never say, "no" and that is something I really believe as a retailer, we just always try and offer an alternative that suits their need, and then they decide if that is good enough for them.
A Conversation About Consumption
Your business is what I would call a purpose-driven business, one that operates with clear guidance from your vision and values. Why was it important for you to have started this type of business?
I saw a need, I saw a problem, and I myself had a need. I wanted to use a refill service and reduce my own plastic footprint. At the time there was nowhere to refill but the concept existed in other cities. This was one of those classic entrepreneur moments where I had a need that wasn't met.
On your website, it states you are the first zero waste grocery store. Can you expand on what zero waste living is, how you got started, and why it is important to you?
I will comment more on the consumer's perspective of zero-waste because it's all connected. Zero-waste has become such a catchphrase now and more becoming a marketing term, but it is really the idea of consuming consciously and thinking about the impact of your actions and your purchases. A lot of people picture banning plastic straws or plastic bags or showcasing a mason jar of the garbage someone has generated over a year. Those are some points of what zero-waste is, but I really think it is just a conversation around consumption, waste, and living more consciously and lower impact.
It starts with when you buy something, what happens with that product at the end of its useful life. Can it be composted? recycled? Or is it garbage? Then dialling back from there. Do I need it? Can I make it?
Nowadays most people consume things mindlessly. We need it, we grab it, we take it, and don't think about the packaging that comes afterwards. We are misled to believe once you put it in a blue box or some recycling bin it's taken care of and be turned back into some nice pristine thing. Or, if you throw it away in the garbage, it ends up in some bottomless city facility where garbage just disappears.
The truth is that every single piece of plastic that has ever been manufactured still exists on the surface of this earth or in the ocean. It never goes away.
There is a popular saying, "There is no away." When people start fully understanding that I think it will affect how they consume.
I am not sure what the exact percentage is, but around 30% of what is recycled actually gets recycled. The rest is garbage.
If there is no one buying recycled plastic, it is not going to be sold. It costs the city and processors a lot of money to store it and transport it. It is still a market and the bottom line still matters so when they can't sell it, they will landfill it.
Most of the world's plastic and paper recycling is purchased by China, though they decided last year that they are shutting the door on foreign imports of recyclables. It has started a global crisis and we are still dealing with the ramifications of that.
There are cities and municipalities around the world that would normally be sending shipping containers full of recyclables to China that they are either sitting on it right now looking for alternative markets or just throwing it away because nobody wants it. There are smaller markets that have opened up in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam and other developing countries that are taking it in but they can't handle the same capacity that China was bringing in. We continue to produce more and more and so they can't keep up with the rate we are producing. It's a crisis.
There are new materials coming out all the time like biodegradable plastic and compostable materials made from corn. We are really innovative in coming up with more packaging, but the processing side is lagging far behind. So, even if we have these new shiny materials that are supposed to save us, but on the other end there is no way to deal with them, it's still garbage. We have all of these compostable materials coming into the market, but our city green bins are not accepting them so it is still landfill. It still takes resources to make them, so you have to dial back and think that you have to grow the crop, use land, energy, and transportation, then process it into a material you can use and still have to deal with it on the other end with how to process it back to a material that will break down, transport around again. There is so much energy, time and resources used to deal with all of this, but we just need to reuse our own cup or fork, which requires very little energy if at all, only our own will.
Local is Best
You work closely with local suppliers with 65% of them being local and 80% of your soaps made here in Vancouver. What are some of the benefits of working with local suppliers? Are there any challenges you face in doing so?
There are mostly benefits because you're working with people who pay taxes in your city and you're elevating each other up, building a stronger more resilient city by supporting each other. You're also keeping your industry within Canada. Canada is not known for manufacturing but with soaps, for example, Vancouver is a mecca. There are so many local eco-brands right here, and the benefits of that are not just about supporting the community but also working with people that care about the same environment you live in. Otherwise, you're working with some giant conglomerate that doesn't live in the area or care about the rivers around here or what happens in this community.
As a refill business, we can do a closed loop system. For example, our dish soap is shipped to us in a 20L pales and we empty it into our dispensers, we wash it and it gets picked up and refilled on the next order. So, we are doing this closed loop and there is no waste generated by me or the manufacturer. That's even better for the environment. We have to practice what we preach, we are asking our customers to refill their containers, we need to also refill our containers.
We can mostly do this with smaller local businesses because they are agile, "Mom and Pop" businesses too so there is not a lot of red tape.
Seven years ago I tried to reach out to 7th Generation, and with these larger companies, there's no phone number, you have to send an email request, and no one gets back to you because you are too small of a business to impact change in their production. But a soap manufacturer down the street from us, they can adapt and change, do special things, and that's what we were able to convince some of our suppliers to do. Some did not use to do bulk before we approached them. Yet we had conversations and planned things out with them, they then took the chance to try it out, and it worked. It took a bit of convincing with one of our suppliers on board, but now they supply bulk across the country.
Who are some of the local companies that use your bulk products for business purposes? How did those relationships happen?
We supply a lot of restaurants, Yoga studios, gyms, bed and breakfast businesses. We ship our soap all the way up the Northwest Territories to a camp in the summer. We sell 20L pales to local businesses, and when we deliver we pick up the empty ones, wash it, then send it back to our supplier and then gets filled again.
We never intended upon this business model, but businesses started approaching us. We've been selling to some of the Yoga studios for seven years.
What are some ways you choose to give back or participate in your community?
We donate money to various organizations, gift baskets, and merchandise for fundraisers. We also offer recycled paper shopping bags available for sale and we then donate that fee to environmental charities.
Last year we sponsored two organizations, we usually pick organizations that we are really inspired by. Free Geek accepts donations of old computers, electronic goods, and phones and tries to repair them. If they can repair them, they will sell the goods in their store at a huge discount making electronics more accessible to the community. And if they can't repair something they take everything apart and recycle the copper, metal, and plastic and it's all processed locally. This is amazing because so much e-waste is shipped overseas to developing countries where it is polluting their community and causing them to get sick. It is the same story over and over again where rich countries that are done with something leave it to a poor nation to deal with our garbage. That is still very much a colonial attitude. We are paying them, but very little. Ramifications of this are destroying their environment. So, I am really happy to support an organization like Free Geek.
Who are your customers?
We serve a very broad group of people including people who don't care about the environment but really like the soap and continue to come in, or they like coming in because it is cheaper and they get a discount when they refill. Whatever their motivation is, as long as they are doing the act of refilling and saving some waste, we're just happy that we can accommodate that.
When someone comes into the store they can't help but see other areas they could improve upon. Often people will come in and not know we carry and refill certain products, so just by being in the store they are being exposed to alternative products and alternative ways to consume it.
It's not like it's 50% of our customers don't care about the environment, but rather a small percentage. We are generally preaching to the choir.
For those customers that have not yet considered buying products like yours, what would you want to say to them to help influence their purchase decision?
I think a lot of people get the impression it is expensive to buy anything eco-friendly or organic. However, when you buy something cheap there are a lot of hidden costs you don't see. For example, you don't see that soap made from a large corporation has ingredients that are terrible and might be polluting the places where it's manufactured, or it could be harming the people making it. If there is a cost saving to the consumer, someone is paying for that cost, whether it is in labour or the environment. Consumers are so used to seeing cheap things, though it's not realistic or sustainable. If you are buying a $5 tank top, someone is not being paid properly or they are cheapening it by blending plastic. It is just the idea that an eco, sustainable, or ethical product is expensive, but the expense is all upfront. It is all taking into account the ethical path it took to get to the consumer. Things are sourced better, they are grown better, and people are paid a fair wage. If you are purchasing a local product you are supporting your own community. It's good to be educated as a consumer on what is what, where it's from, and why it' so inexpensive.
Where do you think the future of refill and zero-waste business will go?
The Future is Zero-Waste
The zero-waste movement and community are really blossoming around the world. Every week people are contacting me from around the world asking for help to open up a version of what we do or a franchise of our store. I think that is amazing considering 7.5 years ago we weren't sure if our business would succeed. People would come in and tell us they really like our business idea, but they didn't think it would catch on. But today, so many businesses like this are popping up.
Sage Advice for Entrepreneurs
As a small business owner, what are the top three things you would pass on as advice to a budding social entrepreneur?
Research. Whether you are opening a pizza joint or a zero-waste store, it's still a business and they will share similar challenges. You have to put in the legwork and lay the foundation.
Consider partnering with someone to share in the workload and decision-making. I have told people who have called asking about the business to not go in it alone.
Believe in your mission. You have to authentically run your business. Live your values in business.
A Simple Message
If you had a chance to share one simple message that millions of people would see, what would it be?
I feel we are in a crisis. Not to sound depressing, but all levels in government, manufacturing, businesses and consumers have work to do, we all have to be involved in reducing our impact on this environment because there won't be much for the future generations.
About The Soap Dispensary + Kitchen Staples
The Soap Dispensary (est. 2011) is Vancouver’s first dedicated refill shop specializing in premium soaps, household cleaners, personal care products, DIY ingredients and fine edibles. We also carry quality lifestyle goods that support zero waste living. In 2017, we opened Kitchen Staples, Vancouver's first zero waste grocery store right next door. We have now grown to about 800 bulk products for refilling.
Refilling containers keeps single-use plastics out of landfills, watersheds and energy-intensive recycling systems. Bring your own, or purchase one of our reusable containers and have them refilled again and again. Our products are biodegradable and selected for minimal impact on human and environmental health. For those who have children or sensitivities or allergies, there are many options that are gentle and scent-free. We strive to bring pure, local, organic and fair-trade ingredients whenever possible.
As a small, independent shop, we feel lucky to work with so many socially and environmentally responsible businesses that are based right in Greater Vancouver. At last count, 65% of our suppliers are locally owned and 80% of our soaps are locally made.