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Small changes, big decisions: The new breed of sustainable grocers

Running a zero-waste food business is hard work, but for these entrepreneurs it’s worth it

‘That small change you make may be insignificant, but if there is enough of a movement at a community level it can have a huge impact.’ Photograph: iStock

When Peadar Rice hears all the talk about sustainability today, almost as if it's the new big thing, he might be forgiven a wry smile. Sustainability has been ever-present in his life for more than a decade, "but not in a pie-in-the-sky hippy way," he insists.

Since 2010 he has been doing what he can to make small changes to make a difference to our world. He has just opened the second of two Small Changes shops in Dublin, with one in Inchicore joining his Drumcondra outlet; and while expanding a business in the middle of a pandemic might seem brave bordering on foolish, Rice reckons the time is right to make his Small Changes bigger.

Small Changes is a local grocer with a zero-waste ethos. There are loose dry and fresh goods and an eco-friendly household refill station to allow customers bring their own containers and buy as little or as much as they need. Rice says his aim is to make it easy for people to shop in an environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion.

The seeds of Small Changes were sown back in 2010 when he was made redundant from the construction industry as the Celtic Tiger breathed its last. If he thought things couldn't get much worse, he was wrong: not long after he lost his job, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

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“I needed to reassess my life and career. I cut down on using strong chemicals in my home and began eating a more organic, plant-based diet,” he recalls.

Peadar Rice with the staff at Small Changes

He also started an online shop from his then home in Gorey, Co Wexford. In 2015 he opened a physical shop in Drumcondra and for the last six years he has grown the business, focusing on local producers whenever and wherever possible.

“I know what it’s like starting off so supporting Irish producers is at the forefront of everything we do. It also keeps our – and in turn our customers’ – carbon footprint low,” he says.

When the country went into its first lockdown in March 2020, he had to take stock to see if he could stay open safely for staff and customers. “Everything changed and there was a lot of uncertainty, and we literally had to change how we worked overnight to keep going.”

Cocooning

During the early days of the pandemic, the shop offered free deliveries to customers cocooning or isolating, and the service was then expanded to everyone else.

His new branch also has what he calls “a secret oasis” where shoppers are encouraged to go to chill out with their coffee, tea or juice from the store. “The idea came when I thought back to my own cancer journey. Taking time out was important for my recovery, and we would like to offer this to others,” says Rice.

He recalls that when he started on his sustainability journey in 2010 he had “a very select customer base, We have always offered refills and promoted zero waste and at the beginning people were agog at the notion that they had to bring back bottles, but awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it has grown.”

He says that between 2016 and 2017 there was a “ huge turning point”. The demographic of the shoppers started to change. “You would see a very young customer base because they could see what is ahead of them, and then we had more middle-aged people who had children putting pressure on them to change, and then we had an older customer base who were coming in because we were offering a style of retailing they remembered from times past.”

What we ask people to do is make a small change and see the impact of that change and then maybe inspire others to make the change too

He points out that Small Changes has not “invented anything new – we have reverted to a way of retailing that was common in the 1950s and before then”.

Rice stresses that his concept seeks to “make a sustainable, environmental and ethical lifestyle accessible to everyone regardless of their demographic. One of the reasons I set up the business was I felt the area was primarily targeted at upper-middle-class people with disposable income, but it should be open to everyone.”

Detergent bottle

He has one customer who has been using the one detergent bottle since 2008. “That one person has had a big impact. It is not practical or sustainable to expect people to radically change their life overnight, so what we ask people to do is make a small change and see the impact of that change and then maybe inspire others to make the change too. That small change you make may be insignificant, but if there is enough of a movement at a community level it can have a huge impact.”

Another aim of the enterprise is to tackle the issue of food waste. All the food sold in the shop is loose, “so people are buying what they need, not what is dictated to them by a supermarket. A person can buy one carrot and two spuds if that is what they want for their dinner.”

He believes he can compete on price with many larger shops. "I don't know if we can compete with Aldi and Lidl – they are in a very different space to us – but I think we are competitive when it comes to other supermarkets: we have similar products and in many cases we are cheaper."

Fiona Smiddy, founder of greenoutlook.ie

He says the traditional business model of retailing doesn’t allow for a genuinely ethical approach no matter how much the chains boast about their green credentials. “All our staff are paid the living wage, everyone gets sick pay, everyone gets holiday pay. We are not screwing staff, we are not screwing suppliers. I have never said to a producer, ‘This is what you need to sell this to me for and you are not going to get paid for six months.’ Big chains are there to service their shareholders. We are here to service the community.”

I think since the start of the pandemic people have been getting rid of a lot of the things that they have accumulated

He says if people come to him with surplus fruit or veg they have grown at home,“we have a chat and we sell their products and they get credit in-store. We have deep roots in the community. I see businesses as having a moral responsibility for cementing themselves into their community. It is not a wishy-washy dream. I am not a pie-in-the-sky hippy – I have been working for 12 years. I have no backers. I have to turn a profit and be successful but a business all the same.”

While Rice might be an old hand in the sustainability stakes, Fiona Smiddy is the new kid on the block.

Travelling

As Rice did, she started her business online. She might stay there. More than two years ago the energy company she worked for went out of business and she set off travelling the world. In some of the poorer countries she visited she saw up close the environmental and economic hardships western consumption was wreaking on the world. Then later on her journey, in New Zealand, she was impressed by the concentration of cleaning and grooming products which had consciously dispensed with plastic packaging.

It prompted her to set up greenoutlook.ie upon her return to Ireland. She says that over the course of the pandemic her customer base has grown and people are increasingly aware of the impact their purchasing decisions have. "I think since the start of the pandemic people have been getting rid of a lot of the things that they have accumulated and maybe seen how they had a lot of things they never used or never would. And I think people are more aware of that waste."

Úna Ní Bhroin and Pádraig Fahy of Beechlawn Organic Farm in Ballinasloe, Co Galway

While she sells mostly sustainable cosmetics and cleaning products, she is also trying to live a more environmentally friendly life, but says it can be hard. “When you go to a supermarket it is just so difficult unless you live near a fruit and veg shop or a shop that sells loose food without plastic. I am trying but it is very hard to be the most sustainable person because society is not set up for that – at least not yet.”

Úna Ní Bhroin is certainly set up for it. She and her husband, Pádraig Fahy, have been farming land in Ballinasloe organically for 20 years; they have 50 acres on which they grow about 25 different fruits and vegetables, which they sell to restaurants, supermarkets, shops and directly to consumers.

I think the interest in the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis is massive

She has noticed a surge in sales since the start of the pandemic, with the popularity of the veg boxes more than doubling to 250 each week. She says the increase in sales was not just because people wanted to avoid shops.

“There was more to it than that,” she says. “Maybe I am being idealistic but there were plenty who would want a delivery to their door but there were also a lot of people who had always wanted to do it and had time to sort it out; there was definitely an ethical element to it. I think the interest in the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis is massive.”

She says the increase in interest was because people have had time “to stop and think and listen. We were all stopped in our tracks and we had time to think and reassess everything.”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor