How I Started A Plastic-free Grocery Delivery Business
I started a business with £0 to tackle the plastic waste problem
“Your mission or purpose is like a magnet that keeps you moving.”
— Doris Johnson
In the 65 years that plastic has existed, we’ve used over 8.3 billion tons of it . Plastic takes up to 1000 years to break down — once it’s on the planet, it’s here for good. And it isn’t just harmlessly floating around: 90% of surveyed albatross have plastic in their stomachs, and by 2048 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.
I went vegan in the summer of 2016. I made the change for ethical reasons, but it also sparked the start of my journey of sustainability. In 2017 I became aware of the zero waste movement, and started learning about the impact of plastic waste on our planet. I began making changes in my own life, trying to eliminate plastic from my shopping.
At the same time, I was becoming frustrated with my career. I was working in a marketing role at a large company who were mostly concerned with growth, profit, and return for their shareholders. Working to revenue targets just wasn’t doing it for me, and I decided to explore ways that I could align my personal ethics, values, and passions with my career. I wanted to do something good. I wanted to have a job that didn’t have negative environmental impact, and I wanted to inspire others to care too.
At some point in the journey, I became interested in the idea of starting a business. I couldn’t see a clear career path for myself that would tick all the boxes, but I could see that I could build this for myself through entrepreneurship. So, I set out exploring what business I could create to solve the plastic problem. The rest of this post will chronicle exactly how I went about this. I’ve tried to include the details that I feel I would have found useful at the time, but if you have any specific questions please do comment and I’ll do my best to answer.
Disclaimer: I later decided that this business didn’t align with my values and goals, so it no longer exists. You can read more about this in my other posts:
Step 1: Escape the City
When I initially got interested in entrepreneurship I consumed as much information as I could. I did an online ‘Entrepreneurship 101’ course with MaRS. I listened to a recording of Sam Altman’s Y Combinator ‘How to start a start-up’ series, one lecture each lunchtime. I read Eric Ries’ iconic book The Lean Startup. I went to a lecture series at the Said Business School in Oxford (I live in the area) called ‘Building a business’.
I learnt lots. But I still didn’t feel I could get started. Enter: Escape The City.
I’m not sure exactly how I first came across Escape the City, but it definitely felt like serendipity at the time. It was November 2017, and they were advertising for the next cohort of their Start-up Accelerator, beginning in January 2018. It was a part-time course, designed for people who wanted to start a business on the side — a ‘side hustle’. Their alumni all seemed like they had started a business with real purpose. Companies like Oddbox, who are tackling food waste by selling boxes of wonky fruit and vegetables. Or like Davy J, making swimwear for adventurous women from ocean plastic waste. It was an investment, but it felt right. I applied straight away.
The idea that I went into the Escape the City start-up accelerator with was a plastic-free supermarket. I was so passionate about my own personal journey with reducing my plastic waste, but I was finding that shopping packaging-free was very inconvenient. Unlike in London, in Oxford there aren’t any zero waste or bulk buying shops. I was having to trawl around farmers markets every weekend, and spend my evenings researching the best options for plastic-free toothpaste. It was exhausting, and I knew that there was no way that living plastic-free would become mainstream if this was the only way.
I wanted to make shopping plastic-free simple and convenient, so that it became an easy choice for all people. I wanted to solve my own problem, and in doing so inspire others to be more conscious of their own environmental impact too. Initially, this would be local to my area in Oxford, but I had big plans to create a chain of plastic-free supermarkets country-wide, to become a competitor to Tesco, Sainsburys, and Waitrose.
The start-up accelerator took place in London over three months, with a session every Wednesday evening, plus alternative weekends. Each week they taught us one element of starting a business, from customer development to marketing and sales. And the first key step of becoming an business-owner, of course: defining your MVP.
Step 2: The MVP
“We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”
— Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
An MVP (minimum viable product) is a way of testing your business idea with minimal risk. You create a version of a product or service which allows you to test how your customers are using it, whether it solves their problem, and what the best way to move forward would be.
Dropbox, for instance, started with no product at all. They created an explainer video which explained to potential customers how their Dropbox product would work, and how it would improve their working experience. This allowed them to see whether there was interest in the idea, before they had to invest in development and technology.
And so, my plastic-free supermarket takeover began with a humble email challenge, helping people to start reducing their personal plastic waste via 5 emails, sent to them once a week, each containing a different challenge. I would also create a community around the challenge, with a Facebook group for members to share their experiences and ask for advice.
I worked in marketing, so creating an email journey was something that would be fairly straightforward for me, and it would allow me to test whether there were people in the Oxford area who wanted to reduce their plastic waste, but weren’t sure where to start. I could also start building up a database of contacts who I could later market the grocery delivery service to.
To set up the email challenge I:
- Wrote the content of each email, which would make up the 5 week challenge. I wanted it to be focused on making slow, sustainable changes, and really understanding the issue of plastic waste.
- Set up the email journey in Mailchimp, a free email marketing service, and added in the content I had written. This would be an automated chain of emails: once a user signed up to the marketing list, they would receive one email each week for 5 weeks, with the content of the challenge.
- Created a simple, free website page using the Strikingly website builder, where people could sign up to the challenge. It’s no longer in use, but you can have a nosy at www.jarfull.strikingly.com.
- Set up a data list in Mailchimp and created a sign up form associated with the list. This is where people would enter their email address to join the challenge. I added the link to this sign up form to the Strikingly website.
- Created a private Facebook group, which I would add new members of the challenge to, using their email address.
Once this was all set up, I started marketing the challenge. I focused on targeting communities within Oxford, as this would be where my grocery deliveries would ultimately be. My main marketing channels were:
- Instagram. I set up an Instagram account for Jarfull, and set myself the goal of posting on their once per day. This was a mixture of photographs and graphics with tips, quotations etc — these I created using Canva, an online design tool.
- Medium. Interestingly enough, this very Medium account started life as a marketing channel for Jarfull. Ben Keene, one of the leaders of the Escape start-up accelerator, had recommended it as a platform to me. I wrote blogs focused on plastic, such as ‘The 5 best reusable water bottles’. I’ve since deleted many of these posts, but you can see a few of the originals at the bottom of my profile. I then created a ‘blog’ tab on the website which linked directly through to Medium.
- Facebook. I started posting on local community groups about the challenge, and even approaching people directly. Trust me, this was completely out of character for me, and a good challenge of getting out fo my comfort zone.
- Events. As another ‘get out of your comfort zone’ challenge, I signed myself up to present at the Oxford Vegan Festival in March 2018, about the intersection of veganism and the plastic waste problem. I’m not a natural public-speaker, but it was a great way to spread the message and to get sign ups for the challenge — I had a laptop with me and people left their email addresses on the way out.
I set up the website and sign up form in February, and by the start of March I had 150 sign ups. I hadn’t known what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect this many people to be interested.
Step 3: Grocery deliveries
The challenge felt like it went well. It was my first attempt, and I had 150 people signed up and following along. Some were interacting on the Facebook group, and I even had a couple of members sending me photos of their progress — one even made some homemade crisps out of potato peelings.
The next step was to actually set up the plastic-free grocery business.
First I needed to figure out the logistics. I would bulk buy stock, initially starting with a few items that I had struggled to find in Oxford without plastic packaging (lentils, beans, dates, a fruit and nut snack mix). I would limit the area that I would accept orders from to the centre of Oxford initially, so that I could make deliveries myself, with my bike. I would use canvas produce bags to transport the products, which customers could either keep for an additional charge, or dispense into their own containers when I arrived.
I moved my website to Wix, which had a shop element that I’d been told was easy to use (and it was), and created a webpage with all the products.
When everything was ready, I put the website live. I sent an email to all my challenge participants (don’t worry, I’d ensured everything was GDPR compliant) inviting them to shop, posted in Oxford-based Facebook groups, and put flyers through doors in my local area.
The orders came in, slowly but surely. Over the course of around a month of being live, I’d amassed one regular delivery order, and a handful of one-off deliveries in the area. I was asking my customers for feedback so that I could improve, and I could see the potential for this business to grow.
But, I could also feel a couple of issues coming up. The first was the question of how I would scale the business up to accommodate more customers. At the heart, it was essentially a logistics company. Although I could manage with a bike and a backpack for a few orders, if I wanted to scale I would need to get a bike with a trailer, or figure out alternative transport — and I wanted to keep it sustainable, of course. Then there was storage for the products, ensuring hygiene standards were high, and that I knew the right amounts to buy to meet demand.
The second was even more pressing. I started to feel like my heart wasn’t really in the business anymore, and I questioned whether it was authentic.
During the process of setting up the business, I had been reducing my plastic waste down to the bare minimum. But towards the end of the process, I had started to move away from this. You can read the full story of this in my post ‘Why I’m no longer plastic-free’, but essentially I began to feel that I was restricted in the items I could buy: even spinach and berries had become off limit. I had also started to feel personal pressure to solve the plastic problem (and climate change as a whole), which didn’t feel fair. Shouldn’t governments, media outlets, and large businesses be pushing for change first? I still believed (and still do believe) that individual action was important, but I didn’t think that all the onus should be on consumers to make changes which would cost them time and money, when ultimately it was pretty much impossible to be plastic-free due to the systems and supply chains our society relies on. If I was no longer personally focused on reducing my plastic waste, it didn’t feel right to put my efforts into persuading others to do this.
Step 4: Changing direction
I didn’t want to just shut the business down, but I did want to change direction. I began to focus on the idea of ‘low impact’ and of using our voices to drive change from the bottom, rather than changing consumer habits. The element of the business I had enjoyed the most was actually creating the email challenge, and developing a community around reducing environmental impact. So reinvented the email challenge as a ‘low impact challenge’ — one email every day for four weeks, focused around the four areas I thought were key to sustain life on our planet:
- Week 1: the impact of our diet on the environment
- Week 2: energy and transport
- Week 3: the role of consumerism (including packaging)
- Week 4: activism and using our voices to make change.
I put more energy into this blog, turning it into a personal blog where I could share my thoughts on big questions in sustainability, and this has been my focus since. The local aspect of the business had seemed important, and so I wrote one of my first blogs on ‘How I shop plastic-free in Oxford’, which has had over 1300 reads — my most successful Medium blog. I also wanted to support others who were working on the sustainability mission, so I created a simple Google map of places to shop consciously — originally focused on Oxford, but later expanding across the UK. This was picked up by the Oxford Mail and has had over 2300 views since.
At the same time, I was also re-evaluating my career. I’ve always been a writer, and I love creating things and putting them out into the world, especially if they’re sending messages that I think are important to share. That’s why marketing fitted my well as a career, it ticked my creative boxes. It’s also why I enjoyed creating the email challenge and the blog more than the logistics service of delivering groceries.
So, I began looking for communication roles which would allow me to write, and to create, but where I’d be working on campaigns that fitted with what I cared about — social impact, and environmental sustainability. I came across Monchü, a creative agency in Oxford working with charities, start-ups, and social businesses to improve their impact through brand and marketing. It fitted the bill, they were looking to take on someone with a communications background, and I’ve been working there since.
Step 5: Lessons learnt
Being an entrepreneur and building a business is no longer my focus, for the moment. But I think of the experience as one of the most valuable lessons in my life so far. If I come up with a great idea to solve a pressing problem in future, I’m confident in my abilities to build a successful business.
Here’s a few of the lessons learnt from starting my plastic-free grocery delivery service:
- Creating something completely from scratch is incredibly gratifying, and it’s easier and less risky (financially) than you think to get an idea off the ground and into existence.
- Being uncomfortable is good. If you exist within your comfort zone you run the risk of stunting your personal growth.
- Your ideas aren’t always the same in your head as in reality. I thought I was creating my ideal business, but it turned out to be a logistics business, which doesn’t fit my skill set or what I enjoy doing at all.
- Never settle, always strive. I’m proud of my career so far, but I also know I’ll never be finished or satisfied — I’ll always have the drive to do, to create, to build, and to fix problems.