Down With Packaging?

Package-free products promise to help the environment—but who are they for?

Mason jar with soap.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by angintaravichian/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Go to any big box store for your groceries and sundries, and you’ll probably end up with a bunch of stuff you didn’t want to purchase: boxes (which often contain an inexplicable number of smaller boxes), the plastic wrap over your toilet paper, hard-sided plastic containers of greens, the stickers on your produce, the plastic bags of bulk beans with twist-ties, the lids on your yogurt or cream cheese. It’s hard to buy an item that doesn’t come in or with something you eventually discard.

Enter the zero-waste movement. Now that recycling and composting have become commonplace in major U.S. cities, the next step to being green is to generate less waste in the first place. The idea has been around for decades, of course, but what was once the province of hippies and Portlandia jokes is moving into the mainstream. While dedicated consumers once schlepped their own containers to the bulk section of their local high-end specialty grocery (see: Berkeley Bowl, New York’s 4th Street Food Co-op, or Seattle’s Central Co-op), big chains like Whole Foods and Sprouts have adopted bulk sections, and special stores devoted to carrying packageless goods are popping up. BYO Mason jars.

The power of diminishing our collective waste would be huge. According to the EPA, the average American creates about 4.4 pounds of trash per day, and we only recycle or compost about 1.5 pounds of that. Buying items that come without packaging seems like a great way to diminish your individual footprint. But in looking at what most bulk stores carry and how they’re run, one begins to wonder what the collective impact really is.

By that, I mean: Who are these stores really for? Of course, in theory, anyone can walk into this store with their own containers and pick up bulk goods. But if you look at the aesthetics and design of these stores, there are some not-so-subtle clues about their target clientele. The two stores in Seattle, for instance, have lots of natural light, hand-drawn boards, and brushed steel and wood. I can’t pretend it doesn’t appeal to me, but that kind of minimalist aesthetic is the default upper-class signifier. As the Guardian once described it, minimalism is “another boring product wealthy people can buy.”

And, apparently, this aesthetic does not include people of color. Both stores’ Instagram posts feature smiling white faces doing good, or white hands holding packageless products. These omissions are rarely intended to exclude, but they are nonetheless a reflection of a wider pattern in environmental circles: wealthy white people taking center stage in saving the planet.

The locations and operating hours of these stores certainly privilege a certain type of customer. In Seattle, at least, one store is located in a more affluent neighborhood and is open Wednesday to Sunday during boutique hours. They vary by the day, but never open before 10 a.m. or close after 6 p.m. The other just opened in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It’s just getting started, but at the moment, it has fairly irregular hours. For instance, last week it was open 4 to 7 Thursday, 3 to 7 Friday, and 10 to 4 Saturday. These hours might work for you if you aren’t employed, have a very flexible work schedule, or have a traditional 9 to 5 with a generous break policy, but they’re certainly not for everybody.

What they sell is also telling. One Seattle store provides refills of some useful household products like laundry detergent, toothpaste, and hand soap, but a solid proportion of their offerings include things like colloidal silver water, activated charcoal, bentonite clay (I don’t even know what that is!), cocoa butter wafers, yellow beeswax pearls, and organic French lavender. I’m all for treating yourself, but these items seem more likely to appear on the grocery list of someone who has a personal assistant do their shopping than your average American, or even your average Seattleite.

Some products at bulk-free stores may be more class signifiers than sustainable replacements. Swapping out plastic wrap for a reusable beeswax wrap seems like a reasonable substitute that could save waste in the long run. But a tote bag with the store logo? A jade gua sha? (Apparently that’s a skin scraper used in traditional Chinese medicine. I’m Chinese American and have never heard of this, but Gwyneth Paltrow swears by it.) A $36 wooden box that can hold your disposal organic cotton facial rounds? If the goal is to decrease waste, I would wager that anyone with the disposable income to purchase these new items has something else at home that could serve the same purpose—but they wouldn’t be as nice to look at, and wouldn’t necessarily come with the zero-packaging bragging rights.

Of course, stores need to make money, and selling eco-friendly products is a lucrative business plan. Consumers are willing to pay a little (or a lot) extra to absolve their guilt about how we’re slowly killing our planet, and business owners likely feel good about offering more green alternatives. But feeling good isn’t the same thing as doing good, and if the packageless movement is going to make a difference, it needs to move beyond selling things to wealthier-than-average consumers. To be fair, perhaps this will happen organically over time as less-wealthy people aspirationally adopt the habits and trends of rich folks.

But even if it does, any impactful zero-packaging movement needs to move beyond selling things, period, and more toward enacting change in the way things are sold in the first place. While personal decisions can collectively produce change, heaps of research have shown that companies are largely responsible for carbon emissions, and corporations have put tons of money into lobbying against any legislation that would require businesses to bear more responsibility for their trash. No matter how many times you bring your own water bottle to fill up at a public fountain, your good deeds have nothing on the billions of plastic bottles beverage companies will produce. (According to Greenpeace, Coca-Cola is responsible for more than 100 billion bottles a year.)

Shipping is a huge part of business logistics, and as long as there’s demand for goods, packages will need to be transported to a store or shipped directly to the consumer. Even stuff at your local boutique-y bulk store probably came in something, and that’s an opportunity to rethink the materials and methods used in that process. One employee of a grocery store with a bulk section told me that their bulk nuts, dried fruit, coffee, spices, and granola all come wrapped in plastic to protect them from pests in transit. While there are compostable alternatives, this employee said they’re likely not yet strong enough to deter, say, a rat from snacking on your bulk-section goods. But perhaps, as sustainable technologies evolve, reusable, biodegradable, or even edible alternatives can take the place of these disposable plastics.

In Thailand, for instance, at least one grocery store uses banana leaves in lieu of plastic wrap. For businesses that ship directly to consumers, companies might consider ditching one-time-use shipping completely; LimeLoop, for instance, offers a shipping sleeve for online retailers that can be used multiple times, and consumers just mail it back after they’ve retrieved their order.

Others are rethinking the supply chain altogether. Loop, which my colleague Shannon Palus wrote about in February, is partnering with companies like Häagen-Dazs and Unilever to package goods in reusable containers that consumers then send back to Loop to be refilled.

A company-level change can also provide consumers with more packageless options, even if they’re not free to trek across town in the few-hour window the specialty bulk store is open; if big grocery chains like Kroger or Walmart opted to adopt bulk sections for all their locations, that could give consumers the opportunity to cut down on the packaging they use.

Even adding training for employees could help make existing bulk sections more appealing to customers of mainstream grocery stores. One Reddit user posted about the shame and confusion they felt when a store employee didn’t know how to properly weigh their containers from home before filling them; another said they were told not to bring their jars, citing OSHA standards. Perhaps that’s one upside to those specialty bulk stores: I bet no one there would give you the side eye, and you’d be able to fill your Mason jars in peace.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.