It Won't Be The Supermarket Giants That Solve Our Plastic Crisis

From subscription meal kits to wonky veg boxes to healthy frozen vegan microwave meals, smaller, niche businesses are changing behaviours faster than any corporate could.

Single-use plastic.

That’s a phrase that nobody outside of environmental circles was really worried about until national treasure Sir David Attenborough went on telly last Christmas and explained to the whole country how terrible plastic is for turtles.

While the nation collectively gasped at images of assorted plastic being retrieved from the gullets of ocean creatures, supermarket executives were also fretting, but for quite different reasons.

Here’s the rub: supermarkets have been designed from the ground up to be totally reliant on cheap, disposable plastic. And they produce a staggering 800,000 tonnes of it a year. In a business where the aim of the game is to keep prices as low as possible, the major food brands and retailers have spent the best part of half a century using single-use plastic to optimise their products and supply chains to keep food fresh and looking good on shelves for as long as possible.

Within hours of the ground-breaking Blue Planet II documentary airing, the needle on the UK’s environmental concern barometer had swung from outrage at being asked to pay for plastic bags to 250,000 people signing a petition to immediately ban single-use plastic. It was a crystallising moment for public awareness on the issue, causing millions of people to think twice about how they buy their food. And such a sharp about-turn on plastic poses a real problem for lumbering supermarkets so reliant on the stuff.

Change, for any large corporation, is hard and slow. Completely redesigning how that business operates, from the products it stocks to the buildings it owns, in an ultra-competitive, price sensitive market verges on impossible. Public pressure and already dwindling sales have caused some to take small steps in the right direction, but to really tackle the problem they need to be thinking much more radically, completely redefining what a supermarket is.

It’s not just environmental awareness causing upheaval in the grocery industry, either. Millennials are (finally) in a position to buy houses, start families, and establish themselves as the dominant demographic when it comes to spending power. They bring with them a generational mind-shift away from ‘one-size-fits-all mass market’ to a discerning tendency to value individuality, provenance, craft, and extremely high standards of service.

Super efficient delivery networks and hyper-targeted marketing platforms mean that smaller, niche businesses can now serve very specific sets of customers better (and often cheaper) than large generalist stores ever could.

Enter a new wave of challenger grocery businesses, such as our own project, Good Club. Borne from the idea that grocery shopping can be done differently: organic, sustainable, zero waste, delivered right to your door, and at lower costs than traditional supermarket models. It’s a bold idea and one that on the inside doesn’t look very much like a supermarket at all. However, the end result is a marked improvement; great quality food in people’s homes, for very competitive prices, without creating mountains of plastic waste.

With the explosion in alternative food services, be it subscription meal kits, wonky veg boxes, or healthy frozen vegan microwave meals, there’s an undercurrent of change towards services that provide a more personalised, nuanced, and dietary-specific solution to feeding ourselves. The cards are marked for the supermarket as we know it. In the same way that high street retailers are struggling to stay relevant, the days of pushing trolleys through aisles and aisles of plastic wrapped, fluorescently lit, over-consumption begins to look old fashioned, too.

A totally new approach to food and consumerism is emerging making a meaningful mark on reducing plastic pollution. It’s mobile, smart, timely, convenient, waste-free, and best of all, it’s being built right now.

Danny Blackman is co-founder and product designer at Good Club