In today’s interview, we are bringing you the story of the first package-free grocery store of Sweden, GRAM MALMÖ. Meet Rowan, the founder of Gram. Her zero waste food shop started firstly as a life experiment, and then turned into a very successful sustainable business. Find your inspiration in our today´s story just as we did.
Who is the founder of GRAM? Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Rowan Drury, originally from England but have lived in Sweden for nearly 12 years, I have a background in marketing and communications and had never worked in retail before opening Gram.
I should say, I started the store, but now I have two amazing colleagues without whom the shop would not still exist, they have helped drive it forward and develop over the last 1.5 years. Sometimes the one with the great idea to start something isn’t necessarily the one to take the idea to the next level, for that you need fresh input and new perspectives.
How did you come up with the idea of GRAM? And how does it work?
I was always environmentally conscious but still, I was a typical consumer – buying a couple of new clothes a month, impulse buying things for the home, etc. Not thinking a whole lot about what consumerism meant for my personal impact on the environment. I then read an article on a woman in New York (Lauren Singer, blog Trash is for Tossers) who could fit two years’ worth of trash in a small glass jar. That was a light bulb moment for me. And from there I started to change my consumer habits in order to create less trash and spit less back out into the world.
So, it started as a kind of life experiment. To see what I could change so my trash and recycling bins didn’t fill up so fast. It worked in some areas of my life (swapping bottles of shampoo for bar soap, using fresh lemon juice to clean the kitchen, shopping second hand, etc.). But, when it came to food, I was constantly frustrated. As consumers, we have very little choice when it comes to shopping with minimal packaging. Supermarkets, where most of us shop, are full of plastic wrapped products, so it’s very hard to avoid.
I heard about “zero waste” shops in Germany where everything is sold in bulk, and I went to visit one in Berlin (Original Unverpacket). From here, there was no turning back. Sweden was getting its first zero-waste food shop.
When you come to visit the shop, if you bring your own containers with you, make sure they are clean and dry. Then follow these simple steps:
Weigh: put your empty container on the scale with the lid on and write the weight on the container
Fill: with whatever you like
Pay: take to the till
Considering the role of Sweden as a pioneer country in tackling environmental issues and the general perception of an environmentally friendly Swedish society, I was surprised to know that GRAM was Sweden’s first package-free grocery store to open just recently! Which are, in your opinion, the reasons for the lack of such spaces in society?
Because Sweden has one of the best waste management systems in the world, and the government are very good at talking about it and encouraging people to sort, etc. That’s great of course, but I think it creates a sense that it doesn’t matter so much how much we consume/throw away because it will be “taken care of”. There is not (yet) enough emphasis on reducing and reusing over recycling.
Some products, even if sold package-free, are more expensive than the ones purchased with a package. Considering this issue, how can people be engaged in free-package shopping if it is not the cheapest alternative?
Some are yes, but in general our prices are pretty comparable to other organic brands you can buy packaged in the supermarket. Some things are even cheaper, like herbs and spices. People tend to compare our prices to non-organic packaged goods, instead of to a like-for-like organic item. However, I get that prices are higher in general being that it is organic and that is a barrier. One way to approach it is to buy just the products from us that tend to be over packaged in plastic in conventional store. That way you don’t have to buy it all package-free but just a selection of most impactful products.
Which kind of containers – in terms of most sustainable materials – would you recommend to those customers who are just approaching a zero-waste shopping?
Use what you have and don’t buy lots of new fancy jars that use more resources. Clean out and save old jars from jams, etc. Cloth bags are also great for shopping in as they are light, if you’re handy with a needle use an old sheet or tablecloth and sew your own.
Why did you decide to deliver your products just by bike? Do you think you’re going to consider other means of transportation for delivering in the following years?
Because it’s the most sustainable 🙂 We are looking to deliver country wide by post, hopefully this will be available next year.
Which is the biggest challenge you have faced (or you are facing) since setting up this sustainable business?
Getting consistently high enough sales/turnover so that we viably scale up/open a bigger or second store has been the major challenge so far.
Which kind of reactions/feedbacks have the GRAM received?
People who make it as far as coming to visit the shop are usually interested from having read about us or seen us on social media, etc. So, they are usually positive, interested, amazed, intrigued, etc. We’ve never had anyone walk in the shop and say what a terrible idea it is anyway!
We’ve seen some comments, or concerns on social media about hygiene, i.e. that it is unhygienic. People seem to forget, though that this is how we buy our vegetables, bread, cakes, sweets, etc. It’s just when it’s something new/different sold in bulk it freaks people out.
In your opinion, which role does youth play in raising awareness about environmental issues?
Youth are vital to pushing for change. Never before has a generation felt so much is at stake regarding their futures, so their role not only involves putting pressure on governments, businesses and other actors to change, but also to sit at the table and say what needs to happen. The voices of the youth need to be loud and clear.
Looking back at when you set up GRAM, is there something you would do differently?
Have a partner or two from the beginning. I did the first 3 years of Gram and setting it all up alone. I’m quite headstrong, determined and independent, which is great for getting things happening, but actually you need others around you to help take share responsibility and decision making and to make sure that a project can have longevity and not cause any one to burn out.
What’s next for you and GRAM?
I’m studying a master’s program in environmental Management & Policy alongside helping run the store. Gram is coming into its fifth year and I think the year ahead will see some change. We’d really like to have bigger location where we can create a zero-waste community and hub with workshops, talks, events as well as a store.
Which advice would you give to young people who want to set up a sustainable business like yours?
Just do it, you won’t regret it even if it doesn’t work out as you imagined it would, everything you do will teach you and talk you on to the next step in your journey.
It is very inspiring to see that even when, as a consumer, you are faced with few alternatives for minimal packaging shopping to choose from, your habits still have an impact. Whether by prioritizing package free products over others, or opening your very own zero waste food shop, reducing consumerism is a choice. Thanks to Rowan for having a chat with us about her sustainable business. Best of luck with your future plans!
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YEE aims to unite environmental youth non-profit organisations in Europe in order to enhance international cooperation, increase knowledge about the climate crisis, raise awareness of environmental problems and to strengthen participation of youth in environmental decision-making.
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