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“Reducing waste is a mental process” – an amazing conversation with Phili Denning, Founder of Naked Larder

I came across Naked Larder through a friend and immediately fell in love with the concept. A zero waste “store” with a difference lead by the amazing Phili Denning, who now shares her experience of setting up a zero waste shopping community of like-minded people. A community that cares about the way they shop and the effect they have on the environment is the future I wish for.

Petra / ZWG: Thanks for taking the time, Phili – I am super excited to talk to you about your business! To start with, can you please tell us about yourself and how your passion started for zero waste? 

Phili / Naked Larder:  Myself and my family have always been passionate about environmental issues and enjoy being out and about in nature, seeing wildlife and appreciating everything about it. About four years ago, I decided I needed a change in terms of the work I was doing. I’d been working at a hospital for 15 years but started to think that I’d really like to do something to help our environment. Didn’t really know what that may look like at that point, though! I started volunteering with Sustain, who run a series of projects looking at sustainable food and farming, as well as healthy food options. Through them I learnt about food buying groups, where a group of people get together to buy better quality food in bulk at better prices and often from more ethical suppliers. At the same time, I developed an interest in looking at waste reduction, plastic waste in particular, and this made me consider the idea of a zero waste shop. At that time, however, I wouldn’t have been able to make the time commitment I’d have needed to run a shop… You know, needing to be there long hours every day, and it also comes with a massive financial commitment in terms of rent which is very expensive in London. 

So I started to think outside the box. We are very lucky that we have a large garage on our land, so we decided to see how we could use that space. The idea was to combine the zero waste shop concept with the model of a food buying group. I wanted to offer something a little bit different to a zero waste store. So I got together a small group of friends who were interested in buying things together in bulk to reduce packaging, keep prices low and source the items in a more ethical, sustainable way. I ordered and then we divided the order between us. 

Petra / ZWG: Actually, one of my best friends back home in Hungary, who’s also running the Hungarian version of ZWG, does this for her own community. She’s bringing people together in her town for bulk buys and it’s really taking off now. People are loving it.  

Phili / Naked Larder:  Absolutely, it has a lovely community feel to it. Although now we are a business and not just a group of friends, we still have a lot of local people coming at the same time to pick up their purchases, have a chat and getting to know each other a bit. We also have a Facebook group where they can share ideas as well. So, it feels like we are more than just a shop.

Petra / ZWG: That’s so amazing and really feels like you created a little like-minded community. In terms of the business, what gave you that final push when you said: “Okay, I’ll just go for it”. 

Probably realising that there was a way I could do it, taking a very different approach but at least able to give it a go. 

Petra / ZWG: Can you tell me a little bit more details about the business? 

Naked Larder is very different to a shop. One reason we decided to do it this way was to try and fill a gap in the market and make this shopping experience more accessible for people with smaller budgets. The shops are tied to high rates and rents, and staff costs, which often means that their prices are quite high. There are many people who do want to make a difference to the waste they are producing in their households, but don’t have the budget to do so from the conventional shops. So, the model we adopted aims to pitch ourselves at a lower cost bracket so we can be more inclusive to those with smaller budgets. We are more like a click and collect service, with an online ordering system where you place your order, then you come and pick up your order monthly. We lay everything out, then customers show up with their containers and take whatever they ordered. 

Petra / ZWG: What were your biggest challenges when you first started off? Anything with deliveries, finding suppliers or even customers?

Phili / Naked Larder: They were more personal challenges, not having run my own business ever before, being very excited and passionate about it, but also slightly nervous whether anybody would come on board or was I going to be able to manage it? There were different challenges every day: How am I going to market it? How am I going to find the suppliers? But I had a lot of resources and connections to help me to find out these things and plenty of support from family in terms of running the business. As things developed, what became my biggest challenge was how quickly it was growing! For example, I very quickly had to find a better online ordering system to replace shared spreadsheets. 

Petra / ZWG: It’s actually a brilliant problem to have for a start-up. 

Phili / Naked Larder: Absolutely, it was amazing. Blue Planet came out in December 2017 and we launched in January 2018. So, there was this wave of consciousness, people just wanted to explore ways of shopping differently. It was just lovely to see so many people start to think how they could make a difference. 

Petra / ZWG: After your initial challenges then, what are your biggest challenges now? 

Phili / Naked Larder: Being passionate about the environment and what I do at Naked Larder, it’s very small relative to the real scale of the problem. 

There’s been an explosion in zero waste shops in recent years. When I started off there was myself and one other store over in Clapham Junction. Now there must be at least 10 shops in a 2-mile radius, but we are all still battling with the convenience and affordability that the supermarkets offer. A lot of people are time-poor, and just couldn’t (or wouldn’t!) consider the idea of shopping in different shops to get everything they need without plastic or other packaging. 

And keeping things affordable… although my service may be more affordable than others, the supermarkets have completely skewed the general view of what food should cost. Their prices are often unrealistically low and someone in the supply chain is suffering as a result. But people see their low prices and that’s what us small businesses are up against. 

The real challenge here is how to take things further and get more people on board. How we can change the way people think about waste. Reducing waste is a mental process. It’s great that there is a big movement, but we need to keep that momentum going and look for ways to reach and engage a wider range of people. 

Petra / ZWG: And that is exactly my next question, because this is something I’m personally super passionate about. Whilst I love sharing the zero waste idea with people and supporting different zero waste businesses, I believe we can only achieve real results if the big supermarket chains decide to rethink their packaging, ditch plastic and offer package-free options. 

Phili / Naked Larder: I agree, but it’s going to be challenging for the supermarkets to take it on, though because we are asking them for a complete system change. Their factories and supplier’s factories are set up to produce their products a certain way – changing that will come with large costs that they don’t want to pay, and plastic is a very cheap substance to produce so producers don’t want to move away from that. I believe the government needs to be much more involved. What we do in a zero waste shop and customer’s willingness to shop with us means we are working from the bottom up, but this has to be supported by a top down approach from the government via legislation and tax on waste. Get the producers pay and take responsibility – if they produce something that creates a lot of waste, they should be charged and have to deal with how it is disposed of responsibly. I can’t see how we can achieve mass change without a 2-way attack. 

Whilst the government is not making changes, the waste is just piling up and our only solution seems to be ship it off to other poorer countries so we don’t have to deal with it. Out of sight, our of mind but completely irresponsible and a terrible way for our country to behave.

Petra / ZWG: I can’t agree more. 

Phili / Naked Larder: Plastic became this demon. But the reality is that you can’t package everything in paper or glass jars –  they all have a major environmental impact somehow. If you just move from one form of packaging to another, you’re just going to shift the problem elsewhere. So, what the zero waste movement is saying is that we must move back to our old ways, when people just didn’t have disposable packaging. When you had a glass bottle, it was valuable, so you kept refilling it, you didn’t just chuck it away and go get a new one. So really, all single use packaging – plastic, glass, paper, metal – all that needs to change. 

Petra / ZWG: I think we can agree that we need a mindset and system change. It’s not just that we don’t use plastic anymore, it’s that we move away from “disposable”. I sometimes feel like we live in a disposable society, not just in terms of packaging, but human relationships, too, as an example. 

Phili / Naked Larder: … Absolutely. And fast fashion is another example. Or phones. You buy a £400 phone, but a year later you move onto a new one. It’s just not sustainable. 

Petra / ZWG: So, what do you think the solution is? 

Phili / Naked Larder: I don’t think we’re going to see major change unless the government introduced a real framework to support this happening, whether that is taxes or that certain ways of delivering products becomes illegal. The supermarkets talk a good game, but they’re not really doing it because they’re not forced by anyone. So, I do think pressure needs to come from the government. But also, people need to voice that it is what they want, then the government needs to act on behalf of them. 

Petra / ZWG: Well, again, I can’t agree more. And on that note, I’d like to thank you for everything that you do. And thanks for taking the time for talking to me – I really enjoyed it! 

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