Circular economy

The fight against waste and food spoilage: surge in popularity for unpackaged goods in France

Agathe Mercante | Updated on January 08, 2018

Sales of loose goods currently represent 1.5 percent of purchases in France. The association Réseau Vrac is supporting and training entrepreneurs who are tempted to set up shop.

No more shelves crammed with products encased in layers of colorful packaging, in pre-determined sizes and formats and that seem to stretch out in endless rows in the supermarkets. There’s an alternative that means less waste, less spoilage and that’s (slightly) easier on the wallet. Bulk buying of food products—a mode of consumption that was widespread until the 1960s saw the rapid rise of supermarkets—is making a big comeback.

This distribution system, which consists of selling products free of packaging and that the client can buy by weight has been enjoying renewed interest in France in recent years. “Today, sales of loose goods represent 1.5 per cent of purchases, but in 2027 they could take up a greater share in the market, in the region of 6 to 7 per cent,” Célia Rennesson, director of the inter-professional association Réseau Vrac said.

Consumers are starting to become more concerned about the environmental impact of packaging and especially that of food waste. According to a study carried out by the French General Commission on Sustainable Development (CGDD) published in March 2017, 47 per cent of French people are careful about how much waste is produced through their consumption habits. 97 per cent try to avoid waste. “Bulk buying can appeal to people of every social category, of all different professions and ages. It can be as attractive to people in the high-income bracket who wish to eat better, as to students on a low budget,” Rennesson pointed out.

Launched in 2016, the association has 250 members and represents all the players involved in the selling of loose food products, from entrepreneurs to retailers and suppliers, in France and around the world. For the moment, the majority of Réseau Vrac’s members are based in France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and Spain. While the association initially reserved its membership to entrepreneurs who were developing 100 per cent bulk-buy grocery stores offering fresh produce (fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat) and dry goods (pasta, rice, cereals), Réseau Vrac now also welcomes retailers that are setting up dedicated spaces for the sale of loose goods adjacent to conventional packaged items. The association offers workshops to entrepreneurs; covering topics from the creation of a bulk-buy grocery store to its management, as well as specific hygiene regulations for these types of product.

But if buying produce loose considerably reduces waste and spoilage, don’t consumers choose the exact quantities they need? It doesn’t necessarily mean significant financial savings. A kilo of rice, whether bought in bulk, or pre-packaged will cost roughly the same. Nevertheless, certain products are up to 40 per cent less expensive when bought in bulk, produce such as spices are a prime example.

The loose goods purchasing trend can be seen as part of a wider movement: that of healthier living. “Consumers want to eat local and seasonal produce. They are also more attentive when it comes to the quality of ingredients,” the director of Réseau Vrac said. But the unpackaged purchase model has its limits, starting with size. “For the moment, this type of business is small-scale; bulk-buy grocery stores rarely exceed more than 60 square metre in size,” she noted.

Another obstacle, and a significant one, is that not all products are eligible to be sold loose or on-tap. For example, it’s currently impossible to sell products that carry a ‘controlled designation of origin’ or ‘protected designation of origin’ certification in this way. A regulation that’s limiting for the producers of these French culinary specialties, each with their own local character, which would easily have found a following among those who shop at bulk-buy stores. The sale of olive oil ‘on-tap’, for example in refillable bottles from a large container, is banned for fear of fraud.

Associations like Réseau Vrac won’t be giving up the fight though. The latter recently requested a meeting with the French Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Travert, and is an active participant in the French Etats généraux de l’alimentation or national Food Convention which was launched in July 2017. Through public consultation via an internet platform, and a series of themed workshops that will run until November, the convention aims to ensure a thorough review of current practices, in the hope of encouraging a shift towards a production, distribution and consumption model that is both fairer and more sustainable.

Agathe Mercante, Les Echos

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Published on October 27, 2017
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