Normalising a zero waste lifestyle: the scoop on Scoop (Part 2)

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Food & Drink Editors spoke to the co-founders of Scoop, Davide Bertone and Nina Stevens, about the ins and outs of running the newly-launched initiative in Durham. With the aim of bringing affordable, plastic-free alternatives to students and the local community, Scoop is removing the high price tag of typically shopping in an ethical and sustainable way. You can read part one of this interview here.

What is your ethos at Scoop, and what does sustainable and ethical food sourcing mean to both of you?

Nina: As Davide mentioned, there’s a sister branch that already exists in Cambridge, but we look very different. Both of us, Scoop Cambridge and Scoop Durham, are part of this bigger umbrella network that Davide and I are working on, called Scoop UK. We’re trying to launch similar looking initiatives across the country and different university towns to give plastic free, cheap and accessible options to lots of different people. Our ethos will be the same as the Scoops that we hopefully will see around the country.

It’s sort of built around three central tenets, the first is trying to normalise zero-waste lifestyles. We thought that introducing an initiative like this, at a time when people are  starting to shop for themselves and cook for themselves is the perfect time to target them with something that will show them they could make more sustainable choices, so that’s where we started from. Actually targeting a student population makes a lot of sense, because these people will carry these habits into their adult lives. And that’s what we want to do: we want people to think about their choices when they shop.

The second one is that we really want to be accessible. We keep saying this, but it really mattered to us that we were creating an option where people didn’t have to compromise between their budget and living sustainably. So thinking about living greener, thinking about mitigating their impact on the planet but without pricing people out.

And the last one is obviously the plastic problem. Scoop isn’t going for the ‘ban all plastic of all time’, plastic can be really useful and necessary. We’re just saying that when you don’t need to use it, why would you?

One of the things, as Davide said, that doesn’t need plastic is dried foods. We have also recently started to look at household items, and currently sell plastic-free sustainable toilet paper. 

I don’t think that there’s one cookie cutter way of living sustainably.  I know there’s a huge debate whether eating vegan is the best thing you can do, or whether eating an omnivore with sustainably sourced meat is better, but I’m not really interested in buying into that argument. I think people will make these choices on their own, and I’m not here to dictate how people make these choices. For me, buying by the weight and having that option with Scoop has made so much difference with the plastic that I use. I compost at home, which is something that we do as a family, and I’ve been vegetarian for the past 5 years. I don’t buy fast-fashion but there is always more that I could be doing. There are lots of different ways you can make your life more sustainable, and shopping at Scoop is one easy way to start making greener choices – shopping local, shopping at small businesses and other local initiatives, regardless of your or food choices, is all part of that.

Davide: I think that’s great – I come at it from more of a political POV. There’s a clock in Times Square which says there are roughly seven years remaining before we hit that threshold whereby climate change becomes irreversible, at least it’s irreversible for us to maintain global temperatures from rising above 1.5ºC by 2100. So for me, if we want widespread change, whereby we tap into everyone’s habit formation, you need to ensure that you make these changes as easy as possible for people. There exists this Diffusion of Innovation model which we looked at Scoop UK, where you have the early innovators in any change, which are the first 5-10%, who in this case are the ones go vegan and go waste free, and then you have different segmentations of the remaining 90% who are take more time to adapt. This is because people find it very hard to form new habits. So if you create zero waste lifestyles which are super expensive, hard to find, require real enthusiasm by consumers, you’ll only be able to target 5-10% of the market, which we see right now. That’s the reason why Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s ignore it. But if you create something that’s easy to find, low-price, it’s cool to be around especially in universities settings because it’s a nice arty environment, then suddenly you can start making change.

That’s the reason why our second value is so important, being accessible to us. We could do three-four times the amount of profit if we priced ourselves normally, and it would be great because it’s going to charities, but it would deter people from going into our store, and we want to make it accessible to everyone.

But let’s return to this idea of normalising zero-waste lifestyles. At university we know, it’s an unfair inequality that due to a university education, students have a better prospect of going further in their career. So I think at university and especially at Durham, we have lots of people going into consultancy, politics, finance, NGO work. So if you are able in these two or three years to encourage a sustainable mindset to be instilled in their values, and when they go on later five or ten years down the line to make big decisions, they’ll be more passionate and more willing to advance that sustainable decisions, and we really need that. I am looking at it from a much larger scale of what could be achieved through creating Scoops at different universities. We are also part of Scoop UK, which is looking to launch in 5 different universities, which is very exciting. So our values are part of a larger movement, which is hoping to enact change, beyond just selling dried foods.

Nina: Not to caveat what Davide said at all, but I think it is important to stress that with our little store in Scoop Durham, we’re not saying we’re going to inform environmental policy for decades to come! Given that though, what Davide said is completely right. You can’t ignore that element of responsibility that with initiatives like Scoop you have this amazing opportunity to help some habit changes of the leaders of the future. Even if you don’t go on to do grand things like that, I think the way that I’ve seen it on a small scale is just as important and influential. My housemates shop at Scoop and shop secondhand, and I think it’s because they’ve seen that I can do this with ease.  So making it easy, and showing people that adjusting their lives is no big thing, which doesn’t require a seismic shift in your ethics, that is what I think makes Scoop special and is what we want to tap into; shopping with us is just a really small thing that anyone can incorporate into their daily life that makes sustainable living easy.

What are your plans for Scoop for the next academic year?

Davide: Right now, we have a 6 month contract which will end around March this year in our current location. We hope that the success of the store and the success of the customers coming to the store in general, bringing more student life to Riverwalk will guarantee us a second lease. If not, given that we are students, we will look for a second location. We built this on being really quick to adapt, and using different ideas of the people in the group and I’m sure that within 55 of us we’ll be able to find a different location. Our hope and our dream is that Scoop becomes a part of Durham culture. On the other hand, there’s the other caveat which is that maybe in a few years time there won’t be any need for Scoop because big supermarkets will do it themselves, whereby plastic waste is mitigated without the need for local pop-ups like ours. Until then, we’ll be there, even if we don’t know right now what the future us will look like, especially due to Covid.

Nina: Both Davide and I are really conscious of making sure that Scoop isn’t just another pop-up student initiative. We want to create something that exists beyond just this one cohort of 55 people, that does last. It launched as a business, we want it to run like a business. So for this academic year we really hope that we can see it all the way through to the end and we think that we’ve got a good, sustainable business model, which is running quite well at the minute. 

What’s important is that these big corporations start taking responsibility for the damage that they’re causing. And we think that small local initiatives like Scoop can put the pressure on big corporations to do that. That’s what we’re hoping the Scoop UK movement can do.

If you see all these little pop ups, which are fun to be at and capture the imagination of student populations, showing up all over the place, then you’re starting to change these consumer habits at these big student bodies. And if enough people do it, they can’t stop us all, right? So I think that’s the sort of collective mindset that we’re hoping to encourage.

Are you planning to collaborate with any other student groups or organisations?

Nina: We’re currently collaborating with a production company called Two Doors Down which is running in a similar way – they would quite like to create something that is equally long lasting and equally community led, something that doesn’t just look like another student initiative run by the SU, something that has a little bit more weight to it. So they’re helping us do some of our ethos videos and a lot of our online content. We’re starting a project where we’ll reach out to different eco and green spaces around Durham, so we’re looking at different college associations, and we’ve already had quite a lot of support for that.

Davide: Before we talk about this on a bigger scale, I think it’s really important to stress the other initiatives we’re working with. So, we had this huge unit initially, different to the one we currently have now. And we thought, how do we best make use of this space? Last year helped work on this student social enterprise called The Ugly Food Group, which is incredible, whereby it takes unattractive fruit and veg, which would get thrown away by supermarkets, such as Tesco and Aldi, and converts it into really healthy products which it then sells to students, or donates to feedbank users. So we share our space, whereby they have the back of the store. They store their fruit and veg there, and use it as a storage unit, and they open once a month in the store to sell their products.

And then there is also Embrace the Waste, and they’ve now created a society here. We’ve featured in their talks and they’ve featured in ours. We are hoping in the future to offer a discount to their shoppers but it’s tough because our prices are so low that we really don’t know where we would offer the discount. But we definitely will partner with them, and we’re looking at ways to collaborate in the future. I think what’s really exciting is that Durham’s becoming quite at the forefront of sustainable initiatives, even just these three initiatives alone, are quite unique in their scope and vision.

Nina: So I buy all my fruit and veg from Market Hall, from that little stand and there’s a guy who runs it called Mark. I was just talking to him and I mentioned Scoop and he said he follows us on Facebook and Instagram which is so nice. He said that he’s been on that stall for 24 years, and that these past two years he’s really felt the student community has changed. He notices that more students reach out to him, and that they care that he sources their fruit and veg locally for them. They care that he’s a local business and they’re supporting that, and they care that it’s plastic free. So I do think that Scoop has come really at the right time for the Durham student body. There’s all these amazing student led initiatives and local initiatives that you can support that are really reflecting how the young people of the world are starting to change and are starting to see that they do have this sort of social responsibility. It’s really nice that Scoop is part of that and really humbling to feel like we have a platform to help.

What has been the best part about founding Scoop in Durham?

Davide: I think for me, the best thing about it is seeing an idea transition into action and transition into something that I’d have never dreamed about. So when we thought of it in March last year, I remember doing the figures and seeing that there was both profitability in it and scope to it. I remember thinking ‘Woah this is quite cool’. And also because it’s quite a straightforward idea – we’re just repackaging and reselling dried food plastic-free from wholesale at low prices. It’s not a genius idea in itself, it is quite a simple one, but seeing the practicality of it and the fact that it could work was really exciting. And then, six months later, after so many hours spent thinking about what it would look like and how it could go wrong, and then Covid, to see it become something that looks professional, like a store, like a business, that’s a pretty awesome feeling.

I still keep a larger vision of what Scoop UK could be like, and we’re both pushing that now, given that we are the biggest Scoop now. Scoop Cambridge is encountering more challenges with Covid so we’ve taken the lead in that regard in terms of really pushing this message that it can work and can work well. So that’s also very exciting for me.

Nina: Yeah, it’s like having that small idea and and watching it become a reality is like an allegory for what we hope Scoop UK will be, which is changing really small consumer habits in students will become part of the fabric of something bigger, and actually will create long lasting change in people’s behaviours and their attitude to the environment. There’s a huge amount of imposter syndrome, sometimes walking into that store, I think, at least for me, I walk in and I just don’t really believe how we pulled it off or that I was even part of it.

In February, this was honestly just an idea. If you think about it, that’s a quick turnaround, especially with Covid, to have a unit and to have a store running within six months, there’s a lot of work that went into that. The best part is the people for me. I’m just really, really humbled that 55 people were willing to be part of this. It really moves me actually that we have such an amazing big team and they’re all people who are really behind it. Even our customers, people who aren’t part of the team, who come back every week, people who send us messages about product recommendations that they have, stuff like that I find is just so wonderful. It makes it feel so much bigger than just the store itself, which is really why I do it. And obviously working with Davide is really nice. We were friends before and I think we complement each other well (most of the time).

How were you able to take action to launch scoop? 

Davide: So Durham is actually an incredible place to start an idea. It’s often undervalued, despite how incredible the enterprise centre is. And because I think most people don’t come to university with the idea of starting a business, there is quite a lot of resources and funding available to start one if you have the idea. I’d seen that the funding that was available for social enterprises at Durham, so we applied for the Social Impact Fund in March 2020, which was this £5000 fund available for different initiatives trying to enhance positive change in Durham and the wider local community. We showed them how we were advancing different values like community cohesion, accessibility to all, sustainable habits. As a result we were awarded  £900 of funding. And that was enough initially, then Covid happened and also you start to realise that there’s different things we didn’t account for. We started a GoFundMe page, and used our social media platforms to just ask people for a bit more money as we did not have enough money to start, and we did not want to take money away from charity and so we needed their help. And through there we raised another £650, which again was really necessary. And I think, again, it is a reflection of our ethos of being crowdfunded, for the people, by the people, in a way, and it’s quite nice to be able to point to both the university help, and the students helping us to launch it financially.

Nina: I mean, it’s been a real patchwork of different people who’ve been willing to support us which is amazing, and our GoFundMe is still running. As I said at the start, funding is probably our main thing that we struggle with because we do keep our profit margins so low, so if you want to see Scoop continue the best way to support it (external to just shopping with us) is to make a donation to the initiative there.

For the practicalities, in terms of the supply side, we did quite a lot of research into different suppliers at the start. There was this trade-off between wanting to support local suppliers from the North-East of England, and also trying to keep our costs as low as possible. We had two main suppliers that we work with at the beginning, and then reached out to more suppliers once we did launch in October as it was easier to do this research in Durham itself. Our head of Supply, Hattie, who is so good at her job and a wonder to work with, reached out to a lot of existing zero-waste initiatives in the North-East, around Durham, so we’ve created this really nice network of other zero-waste stores that help us by recommending their suppliers based in the North-East. So now when reordering, those are our biggest priorities – contacting other zero-waste shops, seeing where they order from, and using those contacts to our advantage.

It’s such a wonderful mix of different things, there was no one method to everything that we’ve done. It’s this combination of  different approaches that should be a testament of why Scoop has the potential to enact lasting change in the community; we have an incredible support network, it is such an easily adaptable idea and inherent to Scoop is this broad way of thinking which will hopefully ensure its success at Durham, and beyond.

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