Re-use for sustainability – the Abel & Cole way.

There are many aspects and approaches to sustainability but one area which has always struck me as a good solution in many aspects is to reuse things rather than replace them. One area that this has been taken on board (with some coercion in terms of a charge) is the use of carrier bags in supermarkets and elsewhere with many of us now adopting bags which genuinely last a long time, rather than even the ‘bag for life’ type.

Whilst that works when shopping in physical stores it doesn’t generally apply for online purchases which seems to generate lots of waste – particularly in terms of some of the excessive sizes of packaging used by Amazon! Ocado (and maybe others) take carrier bags back to recycle which is better than nothing but still seems wasteful when a bag can be used multiple times in other circumstances.

Abel and Cole do it differently however, delivering most of their produce in cardboard boxes which are collected on their next visit and reused. I think this makes massive amounts of sense and is just one of the reasons why I really like buying from them. Whilst most fruit and vegetables are packed loosely in the boxes without any additional packaging other grocery products do need to be packaged for all the usual reasons such as containing liquids.

However, Abel and Cole now have a solution which helps with those products which do need their own packaging through a scheme they introduced earlier this year – Club Zero. With Club Zero they offer a range of products which are supplied in refillable containers in the same way some physical physical stores are also doing. The basic principle of the scheme is that the first time a customer buys one of the items from the Club Zero range they also buy a container, when that container is empty they return it and get it refilled. As far as I am aware this is a first for an online food retailer.

I have discussed the scheme with Abel and Cole and they explained some of the principles of how it operates to me, including some of the issues. It is a scheme which took a lot of planning to set up, as well as work to ensure that it is the right thing to do environmentally – and that can vary according to the product involved.

From an internal logistics perspective Abel and Cole offer two alternatives to suppliers for products sold through Club Zero:

  • The supplier can send product in bulk so Abel and Cole can decant it into refillable packaging. This is used for products such as rice, pasta and quinoa.
  • If a supplier already uses packaging which is suitable for re-use they supply it that way to Abel and Cole who then return empty packaging for the supplier to clean and refill.

One issue Abel and Cole have found is the classical issue of first mover difficulties – they are developing a concept which their customers and suppliers have no previous experience of, so it takes education and experimentation to get this right for all parties.

What the scheme has done is reduce the amount of single use packaging which is needed – they no longer sell any raisins in single packaging for example.

This has meant that prices of some items have had to be increased to cover the packaging costs, but that seems very reasonable to me in the overall scheme of things, although as the re-use containers are generally plastic they do acknowledge that, certainly in the short term, they are adding plastic to the supply chain. For this reason they have started with products which were typically in heavier pots already as this has lower impact.

An interesting point for me which came up in the discussions we had relates to the actual amount of re-usable packaging which gets returned to Abel and Cole to be refilled. It varies according to pot size apparently, with the medium size pot having the lowest return rate. What they did say though is that they made the Club Zero containers “hideous” to encourage people to return them rather than keep them for themselves!

One area which I found very interesting was the consideration for different types of packaging which can be used – I’m old enough to have been around when most households had milk in returnable glass bottles delivered by electric vehicles but that apparently isn’t always the best environmental solution. Abel and Cole have a carbon calculator for milk comparing alternatives such as glass, tetra, plastic and ecolean/chalk pouches – this shows that glass isn’t always the best because the energy used transporting it can erode any savings elsewhere that it provides. Abel and Cole are looking to wash plastic bottles but do have to work within food standards agency guidelines in relation to this, and doing so increases energy requirements. There is an Abel and Cole blog about this here –

Despite that they do offer some products, including milk, in re-usable glass containers. They are trying to do this more but some suppliers are concerned that whilst Abel and Cole customers will be happy to know that they are getting a previously used jar, others may not so they feel they need to separate their sales between that in new versus washed jars.

The principles of Club Zero make a lot of sense to me as a way to be more sustainable in general life without making things difficult or expensive. If you don’t already purchase from Abel & Cole do have a look at what they offer, and in particular their Club Zero range – – to help get to zero waste. All I need to do is get myself more organised to remember to put boxes and containers out each week before the driver brings our next delivery, I’m not very good at that so there are a few in the shed at the moment!!

If you would like to learn more about sustainability in marketing please look at the Sustainability module we offer from CIM, it can be taken as a single module or part of the Diploma in Sustainable Marketing

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