As awareness of the damage caused by plastic waste to the environment grows, businesses are exploring ways they can cut back on plastic and reduce their carbon footprint. One solution proving increasingly popular in Asia is the zero-waste store, where shoppers come armed with containers to stock up on pantry staples like pulses and cereals along with eco-friendly beauty and cleaning products. Encouraging bulk-buying, these stores tend to favour local brands or products from ethical firms and usually offer organic fruits and vegetables.
Responding to the increased interest in sustainable living, Hong Kong’s first and only zero-waste bulk store, Live Zero, has just opened its third outlet in Quarry Bay, a few minutes walk from Tai Koo MTR station. The eco-conscious retailer already has stores in Sai Kung and Sai Ying Pun.
Live Zero was founded by TamsinThornburrow and made its debut at Hong Kong’s PMQ building in 2017. The zero-waste bulk store’s food items include everything from goji berries to organic peanut brittle, and consumers can also purchase beauty products in bulk, including cocoa butter, body washes and shampoos.
Retail in Asia caught up with brand founder Tamsin to discuss the launch of its third store, the challenges of shunning plastic and why supporting local brands is key.
RiA: You’ve just opened your third Live Zero retail outlet in Quarry Bay. How does the store differ to your other two stores in Hong Kong?
Tamsin: This space has room for workshops, which will mean more collaborations. The workshops will cover things like teaching helpers how to shop zero waste style, and there will also be a DIY element, such as making candles and lip balm.
In terms of what’s in store at Quarry Bay, from next month, we’ll be stocking more food products. We bulk shop for the stores, so can’t stock everything as needed to buy food in 25 or 50 kilos – anything smaller is prepacked.
RiA: You support local and small, ethical businesses in your stores. How receptive are Hong Kongers to these companies? Are you seeing more interest in eco-conscious shopping?
Tamsin: For sure. During covid, for example, people wanted to buy local organic produce. For a month, people couldn’t get any vegetables at all, so they bought produce from organic farms in Hong Kong. Right now, we do veg baskets that customers can pre-order, and they’re all plastic free. We also have a kombucha machine in-store that’s supplied by a local brand, Taboocha. Then there’s a nut butter machine: we import nuts, and shoppers can bring their containers and fill up. We’re trying to source more of our cleaning liquids, laundry liquids and shampoo from Hong Kong and are working with Hong Kong Distillery on that.
RiA: Who are the main targets in the new Quarry Bay store?
Tamsin: Our main target is the commercial district and residents of Quarry Bay. We consider ourselves a neighbourhood store – we’re not in a mall and are very independent.
RiA: How about the stores in Sai Ying Pun and Sai Kung?
Tamsin: At the Sai Kung store, we see more families, whereas in Sai Ying Pun, it’s singles or couples. Some who buy in store are regular customers: they may come by once a month, or every couple of months and live further away. Others who come into the shop have never heard of us before, so we need to do a lot of education on what we do and why we do it with them.
We attract a lot of students in Sai Ying Pun from HKU and secondary schools. They might come in and decide they’d like to try some chia seeds, and it’s a great opportunity to buy a little bit – say 50g or even 10g. Some people shop with us as we’re closest to them, while others do so as they’re passionate about the cause and it might take them an hour to get to us.
RiA: Your homeware store, Thorn & Burrow, is situated above Live Zero Sai Ying Pun. Is there much of a cross-over or is it two different customer bases?
Tamsin: In Sai Ying Pun, a lot of people know we are sister stores. They might come by to look at homeware, then shop for some groceries, so there is an overlap. Thorn & Burrow is a sustainable brand with a similar philosophy to Live Zero. We stock local products and wrap everything in paper, for example.
RiA: You are Hong Kong’s first and only zero waste bulk store. Do you hope to see other similar retail concepts launch in the city?
Tamsin: Yes for sure, and some are popping up. But the main difference between us and them is that I believe I can get everything without plastic. I’m quite strict about plastic. I could stock nut milks, for example, but they come in a Tetra Pak, and that’s just not for me.
RiA: Where do you source your products from?
Tamsin: We’re trying to get as many products as we can from Hong Kong, or nearby countries, this year. There’s a lot of great organic suppliers in China, and we get frozen berries from the mainland. We like to source products from as close to home as possible, not only to reduce our carbon footprint but also because shipping prices have increased a lot since 2019.
RiA: When you launched Live Zero, the goal was to grow a community around a zero-waste lifestyle. Tell us how you shop in daily life.
Tamsin: I do all my shopping at the wet market, and second-hand stores. I’m quite a frugal person, so it works for me. What I would say is that it’s a snowball effect: once you start saying no to plastic straws, then you begin to think of other ways you can cut back on plastic. Having said that, we have donated jars and paper bags in the store for customers – we don’t want to say you can only shop with us if you’ve bought your container.
RiA: Your homeware store, Thorn & Burrow, opened in 2015. What did you learn from that experience?
Tamsin: I had a real passion for design to start with and that was background. I built it from the ground up – it was about finding everything I loved that wasn’t available in Hong Kong. You can’t start something like that on a whim.
RiA: How ambitious are you for Live Zero and what is your retail strategy?
Tamsin: I think we’ll always be small scale, as that’s who we are and that’s why people like us. We’re not your typical grocery store, but more like a mom-and-pop store.
RiA: Do you think Live Zero could work as a retail presence overseas?
Tamsin: While there are zero waste stores in Australia, the UK, the US, Singapore, and Malaysia, I’m not focused on overseas. With zero waste stores, it’s more driven by businesses opening in neighbourhoods that they know. I know Hong Kong well, so the plan is to focus on the city.
RiA: What are your plans for the rest of the year and going into 2023?
Tamsin: Now we have a marketing team, it’s about spreading awareness, as a lot of people still don’t know about us. I really want to hit the local market more. I’m half Chinese, and we translate everything into Cantonese, like our social media posts, and work with local brands and media. We do a lot of talks at schools, although it’s mostly international schools right now. If we can educate the kids, they can educate their parents.