Saving the planet

March 8, 2021

All businesses are led by the wants and needs of their customers. It’s therefore encouraging to hear that more and more of those customers are becoming environmentally conscious, looking at how they can reduce waste and their carbon footprints. Whether it be a business looking to cut down on single-use plastic or an individual looking to recycle more, many are trying to play their part in tackling the climate crisis, which is still the most pressing facing humanity, despite the coronavirus pandemic. The three Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – are no longer the preserve of the few environmentally enlightened; they are being adopted right across our COVID-19-wracked society. One business that was early to the zerowaste party was mother and daughter-run food broker Buy the Kilo. Jackie Sewell and Rachael Brien launched the business in Tynemouth Station back in February 2019, selling a wide range of goods such as pasta, cereal, nuts and flour, as well as household cleaning products and toiletries. Here, former barrister Rachael tells their story and explains how it’s not about pursuing sustainability like it’s some kind of religious doctrine, but just doing your best to live a sustainable life whenever and wherever you can.

I grew up in Cullercoats and then Tynemouth, and mum and I have spent quite a bit of time in Cornwall over the years visiting family. We found several zero waste shops down there and wanted to shop the way our family did, so decided to bring the concept home as there wasn’t anything like it at the time between Darlington and Berwick. Mum graduated from her Fine Art degree in 2013, having previously ran her own interior design business for 30 years. Her work is about the problems surrounding single-use plastic. She had always wanted to open a gallery, so we merged the two ideas.

I started barrister pupillage ten years ago but by late 2014 had decided to take a sabbatical. I was very young – 23 – when I started out. I wanted to help people but found it hard to become involved so far down the line when many things had already happened. Added to that, I craved a more creative environment to work in. I decided to take a chance. I volunteered with the Koestler Trust, a prisoner art charity; I worked as a special advisor to Karl Turner MP; I started a year-long antique tile project, which I still run; I ended up working in an incredible antique shop in Chelsea and then set up a business with a friend selling socks for women.

Mum and I are extremely close and at this time in our lives, it is ideal. We are very different and yet almost entirely the same. Mum seems to figure things out by getting on and doing it: I tend to need to sit down and think about it first. They are complementary approaches as she can make my ideas come to life, as well as her own, and I can maybe plan how and when to use her ideas in a more strategic way, as well as thinking about an idea in a wider context. I’m learning so much from her. I think shared or joint leadership has its advantages. It does mean we can clash, but at the core of our relationship is respect and love.

I think we may have inspired people to put their ideas into action and have subsequently helped over a dozen shops with advice and support. We get asked if we are connected to the other stores in the region, which is a good thing. It means people are aware of the wider concept and movement. Our customer base has grown steadily. We had a lot of early uptake as there was such a demand for it. We have many European and international customers who shopped this way in their home countries, as well as others who had moved up from the South, where the movement was stronger at the time.

Business means different things to different people. Of course, you need to earn enough to pay rent, bills, buy stock and pay your team. But for us, it’s not about earning more at the expense of doing something we feel is important. We encourage customers to buy what they need and not over-buy. We try to use recycled materials as much as possible, whether it is old scaffolding boards to build shelves or recycled paper bags for customers to use in store. We try not to waste anything and donate out of date stock to relevant charities.

We’re at a point where all businesses should take the time to think about how they can reduce their footprint. If businesses did it more, it would help the customer to make better decisions. At the moment, customers face a near-impossible task to totally cut out single-use plastic from their lives. Mum and I don’t live an entirely plastic-free life, we just do our best and encourage others to do the same. We all worry we aren’t doing enough. People have many things going on in their lives and some face significant and varied challenges, which makes living in a more environmentally-friendly way extremely difficult. It needs to start at the top with better governance coupled with more awareness campaigns.

We were very fortunate to have a committed customer base almost from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to demand and some great local press. When the first lockdown came into force, we had to change our business overnight and move to a click-and-collect system. Our customers were so patient as we figured this out. Many of our current customers only started shopping with us during the first lockdown and so had never been into the shop. When we finally re-opened, they were delighted to actually come in and see what we had. We’ve formed close relationships with many of our customers, share ideas and genuinely support each other. If I’m having a bad day, I find our customers lift my spirits. I hope we do that for them too.

I hope the appetite continues to grow for this type of shopping experience. We get new customers all the time. But I think more has to be done, and sooner, by the Government. For example, Kenya’s Environment Minister Judy Wakhungu introduced a ban on plastic bags in 2017. We need more decisive action like that, coupled with incentives for businesses to adapt, to meet the needs of the planet.

Buy the Kilo