I’ve started thinking about what I should do next after Google (or within Google if the opportunity strikes). As an avid online shopper, I receive more packages than I would like to publicly divulge. Eventually, I began to make it a point to note the material composition of the boxes that arrive at my doorstep. For a few years, packaging has been a space that I’ve been pondering about. Before COVID-19 forced our hand in regards to how we buy and sell goods vis-a-vis, e-commerce was already trending upwards. One only needs to take a look at the Amazon effect on our lobbies and recycling departments to see that this is a business and environmental problem that requires an outside of the box solution!
Zero-waste as a concept has struggled with the realities of COVID-19. During the early days of the pandemic in New York, Lauren Singer, founder of the Package Free Shop in Brooklyn shared in a post with her followers: “I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t even recyclable in NYC recycling or maybe even anywhere. I bought things that could stay in my cabinet for years if need be, and it made me so confused.” As someone who is a planner, when the Google offices closed in early March, I went into doomsday prep mode and stocked up on plenty of plastic-wrapped, long-shelf life items that I ended up donating to the food bank when I packed up my apartment this week. Although the farmers’ markets have opened up again, buying zero-waste in the middle of a pandemic is almost impossible when the guidance is to stay at home and socially distance. The easier go-to-market alternative would be for minimally wasteful products to be sold online, but oftentimes, these companies and CSAs don’t have the strongest digital presence or fulfillment system.
At the crossroads of choosing between having food to eat and one’s environmental values, it is a privilege to even be writing about this topic. An overlooked aspect of the environmental movement is that socioeconomics (by default in America, this is correlated to race) are directly tied into choices around environmentalism. Growing up in an immigrant household, yoghurt containers in our fridge and Royal Dansk cookie tins were always deceiving. They rarely held the goods that their labels purported to hold. After a single use, my Mom would often convert a Royal Dansk cookie box into her sewing kit. We recycled and upcycled often out of necessity. Hand-me-downs were a way of life and zero-waste was a way of survival.
In recent years, I’ve seen that Farmers’ Markets are now accepting EBT (for my international readers, these are American food stamps), but for most of the underclass of America, an accessibility drought has resulted in food deserts devoid of nutrition. Heavily packaged and processed foods are what many lower-income households end up consuming due to pricing and availability. Most innovators are not focused on innovating choices for those who have not.
In early 2019, I saw an article in Fast Company about a zero-waste platform that would sell a coalition of household brand names (i.e.: Tide, Crest, Haagen Dazs). Heralded as a vision that would change the way consumers shop forever, I signed up to beta test the platform.
“In the not-too-distant future–as soon as this spring, if you live in or near New York City or Paris–you’ll be able to buy ice cream or shampoo in a reusable container. When you’re done eating a tub of Haagen-Dazs, you’ll toss the sleek stainless steel package in your personal reuse bin instead of your trash can. Then it will be picked up for delivery back to a cleaning and sterilization facility so that it can be refilled with more ice cream for another customer.”
A subsidiary of the recycling company Terracycle, Loop Store was created to introduce a reusable “milkman” style of shopping for your everyday household items. Below are some of the brands they currently partner with.
Excited to try this sustainable concept out, I created an account in New York. They had a snack (i.e.: dried mangoes, pistachios) section that I eyed. I contemplated buying some Clorox wipes, but we already had a 10-pack supply purchased through Amazon at the beginning of COVID. The pricing of the “sustainable-version” products at Loop were slightly more expensive than standard market pricing. I would have also only considered buying from a handful of the brands they had signed on to their platform. The marketplace of brands was still growing. In the end, the only thing that I wanted to trial was their reusable Venus platinum razor. After all, it’s summer in the city! Before moving my entire shopping cart to Loop, I wanted to trial the experience first with one item. How was it designed? How easy would it be to build the habit of consuming in this reusable way?
I added the razor to the cart and was immediately hit with sticker shock! My $24.99 razor became a $65.98 purchase. With Amazon’s unfair advantage in logistics fulfilment at scale, consumer willingness to pay $20 for delivery and return is unheard of for a $24.99 razor. From my time covering the retail business at Google, one of the primary reasons for people abandoning carts came down to an aversion to the additional shipping cost at checkout. It was also unclear to me if the delivery and return fee is a one-time thing since I abandoned my cart.
The purpose of the deposit system was unclear to me, nor was it explained in detail on their website. Outside of COVID – even during confident economic times, this would be a tough sell to consumers. The price was simply too high, and would only be a realistic option for those within a certain socioeconomic bracket. As it currently operates, I don’t see how Loop can find enough users to sign up to instigate a change in consumer behavior with their business model. If you could return or pick up the products at a Krogers or Walgreens, perhaps this could make sense – but the price to be green requires too much green for many.
Loop could potentially make sense if you are doing the bulk of your household buying on the platform, but even then, the selection of partnerships they have now are too limited for my purchasing needs. The Loop Tote, which was branded as a ‘status’ signaler in the household that one’s values leaned green, seems more of a burden in New York where counter space and storage space in the home is limited.
As much as I anticipated Loop’s arrival on scene, I was disappointed to see how their UX and pricing experience didn’t take into account the psychology of today’s customers. It is one thing to be slightly more expensive and it is another to have your shopping cart double in price at checkout with hidden costs. Hopefully, as Loop continues to grow, they will begin offering some of these products through an in-store pick up and return process so that this can be more financially accessible to many families without the added cost of delivery, totes and deposits. Loop is a brilliantly disruptive idea in need of a more customer-friendly design journey. We are in need of a revolution in the way our purchasing habits are engineered. Let’s see where they end up going!