Like and subscribe: how ethical retailers are making everyday essentials cheaper

3 min • 2 Jun 2021
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Want to be a sustainable consumer? It’ll cost you. Or at least that’s often the message, with cheap products vilified while their eco-friendly, ethically made counterparts have wince-inducing price tags as standard.

But true sustainability needs to cater to all budgets – whether it’s fashion, food or those household necessities we can’t exactly give up (after all, nobody is pledging to quit loo roll).

Times they are a-changing

Thankfully there’s a new generation of retailers striving to do things differently, with new purchasing models that don’t cost the earth. Through reusable packaging, bulk-buying, subscription options and even radical new pricing structures, brands are thinking outside the box and taking tips from the past to forge a more responsible, more accessible future.

Subscription and delivery options

Greener cleaning products

Take cleaning products – chemical-laden, plastic-heavy and disposable by nature, right? Not necessarily. Startups such as Homethings and Spruce are pioneering an alternative, plastic-free system, with reusable glass or metal containers that you refill yourself using concentrated tablets or powder, and water from the tap. When you realise that around 90% of a standard cleaning spray is just water, it seems bizarre to keep paying for it by the bottle. And while the initial outlay can be high (typically £20-£30 for a starter kit), subscribing to regular refills will ultimately bring costs down. Homethings calculates that its refills work out cheaper than market equivalents like Method and Ecover.

In the bathroom

Elsewhere in the bathroom, subscription services have us covered. Among the items now available on a rolling basis are plastic-free razor blades (Harry’s, FFS and Estrid all claim to shave pounds off your outlay compared to disposables); period care (Daye, Ohne and TOTM deliver their organic cotton tampons for free and allow you to customise each box according to your needs); even bars of soap (Soap Folk’s All Kinds subscription sends a paper-wrapped bundle of offcuts to your door at a 15% saving).

To be clear: it’s rare that any of these premium brands work out cheaper than their mass-market counterparts. But if you’re committed to cutting single-use plastic, subscribing can definitely help to absorb the cost.

Then of course, there’s toilet paper. Available in bulk orders of 24, 48 or even 96 rolls, the new social enterprise brands like Who Gives A Crap, Bumboo and Naked Sprout offer recycled or bamboo paper in plastic-free packaging, with free delivery and a standard 5% saving if you subscribe. Extra-long rolls mean that on a price-per-sheet basis (yes, we did the maths), Who Gives A Crap works out slightly cheaper than Andrex and only 0.0006p more expensive than Tesco’s own Luxury brand. And there’s none of the embarrassment of walking home with a multipack under your arm.

At the shops

Exploring traditional options

The growth of online retail is hardly news, but the pandemic has made people ever keener to have our shopping delivered to our door – and that goes for the kinds of daily essentials that we used to fling in our basket at the supermarket, as well as clothes and treats. Good old-fashioned milk delivery is enjoying a revival thanks to services like Milk & More and Modern Milkman, which load up their (electric) floats with bread, eggs and other artisan groceries, and collect your empty glass bottles to be reused. At 81p for a pint of semi-skimmed milk we can’t say it works out cheaper than the supermarket (a plastic carton at Tesco is 50p), but it’s on a par with the local corner shop. Plus no delivery fees and no minimum spend means there’s no temptation to buy more than you need.

Packaging-free

Meanwhile now that the country is opening up again, so are our options for IRL grocery shopping. Recent years have seen a rise in packaging-free shops, with large vats of produce for customers to fill their own reusable containers. While there are savings to be made on like-for-like purchases, the quality tends to be higher – which means that, compared to budget brands, prices are too.

At the supermarket

However, supermarkets are finally cottoning on to the demand for greener shopping and as a result we should see more affordable ways to cut back on waste. Asda, M&S and Sainsbury’s have all trialed refilling stations in-store, and last year Tesco piloted a scheme with Loop which delivers family favourite brands in refillable packaging which is then collected and reused. “Why own a product's packaging,” they say, “when all we really want is the stuff inside?”

Small businesses

Still, it’s the small businesses driving the biggest changes. One shop pushing to make eco-friendly options more accessible to everyone is Sancho’s, an ethical fashion and lifestyle boutique in Exeter, which has made waves with a ‘transparent pricing’ policy that allows customers to choose between three different price tags. The lowest covers the basic cost of the item, the middle price helps to cover the shop’s overheads and the highest price includes an investment into the future of the business – so that they can keep offering lower prices to others. As Sancho’s sums it up: “If you spend more, you give someone the opportunity to spend less.”

Ultimately, that pay-it-forward philosophy that will help bring down the price of ethical shopping. Everyone has their own budget, their own set of privileges and priorities to navigate – but by spending a little more if we can afford to, when we can afford to, we invest in a fairer future that could help level the playing field for everyone.

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