Plastic-free on electric wheels – Charlotte’s Cupboard

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Plastic packaging is a hot topic. With reports that the oceans are filled with plastic waste, that micro-plastics are making their way into drinking water, and that the UK currently only recycles one third of its consumers’ plastic, something must be done.

There are efforts worldwide to reuse and repurpose waste plastic, but the base issue to be addressed is over-use of plastic where it is not necessary.  Zero-waste, zero-plastic shops are springing up across the UK, and the big retailers are taking notice of these consumer trends.

Charlotte Cross and Thalassa Sauvalle de Rementeria are the women behind Charlotte’s Cupboard, a plastic-free shop on electric wheels. Selling everything from pulses, to spices, to cleaning products, they pop up at various places throughout Sussex as well as offering a delivery service. Locavore spoke to them about the inspiration behind Charlotte’s Cupboard, the difficulties of sourcing plastic-free from suppliers, and their electric van. 

Photo: Rebecca from Mills and King Photography

How did Charlotte’s Cupboard come about?

I am not sure where to start! It’s been a journey! Interestingly, although we have been best friends for so many years, because I was living in Spain and Charley was in the UK we found our path to a plastic-free lifestyle separately. Long story short, we have always been interested in learning as much as possible about everything, and our reading and Ted Talks and so much more led us to veganism, and to worrying about the planet.

This in turn led us to being incredibly shocked at how we use plastic without thinking, and without really understanding its mostly negative impact on the environment. Every day, people buy food wrapped in plastic packaging and, generally, have very few options to buy food without it. 

We were both working in different sectors completely unrelated to what we do now; Charley came up with the original idea as she had decided that the most important thing was to work on a project that meant something to her other than a salary. Helping the planet and helping others reduce their waste is something we truly believe in. Charlotte’s Cupboard offered a solution to a problem that we ourselves were facing at the time: how to reduce our negative impact on the environment, and reduce the amount of plastic we use and buy on a daily basis. 

Tell us about Peggy, your electric van.

We love Peggy! Peggy is 100% electric and powered by renewable energy. Inside she is tailor-made to look like a cupboard, or shelves in a shop. We were very keen to be mobile because we understand that going ‘plastic-free’ for your weekly shop can seem like a daunting change and we wanted to make it as easy as possible for everyone; delivering direct to our customers’ homes is the easiest a weekly shop is going to get! Peggy helps us achieve this and she also gets more attention than we do. Everyone knows her name! 

Photo: Emma Croman

How does buying from you work? Can people use any container?

Yep, that’s what we want. It can even be plastic…

Any container, box, bag, sack, hand, or pocket will do – as long as it can sit on our scales we will accept it. We support any attempt to reuse and recycle and, if a customer has forgotten a container, we also have jars to give away that are recycled from other customers, or cute Charlotte’s Cupboards sacks on sale for £2.50. Our customers bring their containers, tell us what they want and we fill it up, weigh it, and charge. We accept cash or card too, which has really helped. 

There are more and more zero-waste shops opening in the UK. Why did you decide on delivery and markets rather than a shop premises?

We are thrilled to see that other zero-waste shops are opening up. The more of us there are the better; people will begin to view our way of shopping as ‘normal’ and the future will be better if this happens! We decided on delivery because we discussed the pros and cons, imagined ourselves as customers, and realised that we needed to make it as easy as possible for people looking to reduce plastic. 

Who are your suppliers, and how do you choose who to work with?

The long and winding road of suppliers! It’s been a really interesting part of the business and we have learnt a lot about the way that suppliers work. We have had some negative experiences where we have been promised a plastic-free delivery and then received products in plastic. But then we have had some fantastic experiences with really open minded companies who had never delivered or packaged anything plastic-free before us, and were open to discussing how to store the products and how to get them to us without the need for plastic. Yay!

We have lots of different suppliers for different products. We have already changed some precisely because our goal is to reduce plastic. Tough decisions, especially when a product is popular with our customers. We used to sell chocolate buttons, but our supplier wouldn’t reduce the plastic. I even called the factory in Belgium, but they didn’t offer us a solution. We now work with a fantastic chocolate manufacturer, and we are excited about lots of other new products in the pipeline that will also be plastic-free.

What has been the uptake and reaction to Charlotte’s Cupboard?

Absolutely fantastic. We knew that it would be good, but I don’t think we ever imagined that so many people were so excited to reduce plastic and support us so much. From everyday customers, to schools, to councils, we are thrilled with everyone’s reaction and we are excited about what the rest of the year has in hold for us! 

Do you think that small-business innovation, like yours, will inspire big retailers to implement changes in the way they do things?

We hope so! I am almost certain it will happen, and I hope that we can inspire the management boards of shops like Tesco and Waitrose, because it is a really necessary and important change that needs to happen. As businesses, it is our responsibility to provide positive solutions to our customers. 

Photo: Emma Croman

What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for Charlotte’s Cupboard and the wider food world?

Our hopes are to encourage as much positive change as possible and to help people reduce the amount of plastic they buy. Especially single-use plastic. Our money really is our voice. Every penny we spend says something. If I buy a plastic water bottle then I am supporting the manufacture of more plastic bottles. 

We also hope to learn from others and create a community of people who can support each other. The term “zero-waste” can seem daunting. We don’t want to put anyone off, because even making one change towards buying less plastic should be celebrated. 

We have days when we feel a bit down, and overwhelmed by how much we need to change in order to help ourselves and our environment. Governments and policy makers need to pay attention to environmental issues and act on them, as do businesses. But on those low days we receive so much support from customers and we realise that we all really do have a powerful voice. As one person, we might feel small. We wonder if we can make a change. But together we can have the voice of millions, so positive change can and will happen!  

Finally, why do you do what you do?

Because we are passionate about it, because we are providing a solution to a very important problem. And because this is the future. 

We are two normal girls who live relatively normal lives. If we can go plastic-free then everyone can. 

For Charlotte’s Cupboard’s website, click here.

Find them on Facebook here.