From Environmental Awareness to Sustainable Practices

A Case of Packaging-Free Shopping
  • Ragna ZeissEmail author
Living reference work entry


The enormous problem of packaging materials, especially plastic, is widely recognized. Despite initiatives to reduce packaging, this recent problem is difficult to tackle. This chapter asks why we do not “simply” stop buying packaged groceries. First, it compares factors of importance and shopping practices in grocery shopping between an ordinary supermarket, an organic supermarket, and a packaging-free supermarket. Second, it reports on an exercise in packaging-free shopping in a place without a packaging-free supermarket. Which changes in everyday practices and routines were observed? In line with Garfinkel’s breaching experiments, it explores what we see as normal with regard to shopping and how that normality may need to be breached in order to shop packaging-free. In line with research by Elizabeth Shove, the chapter argues that changes in sustainability practices do not “simply” follow from increasing environmental awareness. It shows how efforts at sustainable living are interconnected with everyday routines and practices which are difficult to change. Investigating these practices and how they change is crucial to live a life of engaged sustainability. The chapter further reflects on the value of exercises like packaging-free shopping for understanding how practices become “normal” as well as for experiencing lived sustainability.


Packaging-free supermarket Grocery shopping Sustainability exercise Practices Routines Everyday life Waste Environmental awareness 


Packaging – much of it single-use food wrapping – has created a rubbish problem that now pollutes every corner of the world. (Hall 2017)

Only about three generations ago, shops around the world sold mostly local products, and transportation distances were short. Shopping was done with very little, if not zero waste. Technological changes in transportation and packaging material such as the production of plastic after the Second World War have allowed preservation of food for a much longer time and import and export of food between different parts of the world.

This had led to large changes in terms of practices of shopping and standards and ideas of cleanliness, freshness, and convenience. Consumers now have access to a wide range of products all year-around. They are able to store products at home for longer times, also due to inventions such as the fridge. They can buy ready-made sauces or even entire meals. They can buy all products from the same store, a relatively new phenomenon. Self-serving shopping in the form of supermarkets only started after the Second World War and particularly in the 1970s (Tomka 2013: 238). Things are won and things are lost with all changes; these changes and changes in, for example, working life and who participates in it altered practices of shopping, eating, and cooking.

Many products became packaged to be able to transport them; to keep them clean, fresh, and safe; to convey information such as the ingredients and expiry/best before date; and to avoid tampering with the products and for marketing purposes. Whereas the benefits of packaging were clear, the enormous problem of packaging materials, especially plastic, has been widely recognized more recently. According to a Guardian investigation, consumers around the world “buy a million plastic bottles a minute and plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.” (Laville 2017). The chapter further states that research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation points out that the amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity and that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. However, it turns out to be very difficult to tackle this problem that was created in only a few decades. There have been efforts to increase environmental sustainability, such as investments in recycling. However, the global production of plastic has continued to rise (Gourmelon 2015). Why then do supermarkets not simply abandon their packaging? And why do (concerned) citizens and customers not simply purchase products packaging-free? This chapter focuses on the latter question.

Can environmentally aware citizens not simply set an example? This chapter shows that environmental awareness can be important in attempting to make changes but that this is not “simply” done. Environmental awareness is one aspect of our daily lives which are largely structured by routines and practices. We cannot “simply” change the ways our lives are structured; we have a stake in maintaining these practices and routines.

An anecdote of Dave Hall illustrates the importance of practices and routines – here called habits – which are a strong obstacle to pro-environmental behavior change (Kollmus and Agyeman 2002):

In 2003, I was told by a restaurant owner on a Thai island that local fishermen used to wrap their lunch in banana leaves, which they would then casually toss overboard when done. That was OK, because the leaves decayed and the fish ate the scraps. But in the past decade, he said, while plastic wrap had rapidly replaced banana leaves, old habits had died hard – and that was why the beach was fringed with a crust of plastic. (Hall 2017)

This chapter reports on initiatives and exercises in engaged sustainability and particularly on practices and exercises around (packaging-free) shopping. The reader is invited to reflect on his or her own shopping routines and practices. The chapter focuses in the first instance on individual practices and routines but argues that these are part larger and interconnected practices and, in line with the work of Elizabeth Shove, “normal ways of life.” The chapter is in line with the idea that practices are linked to and “reproduce what people take to be normal and, for them, ordinary ways of life” (Shove 2003: 395). These “ordinary ways of life,” these practices (which can be called habits at individual level), are not limited to individuals but are part of wider societal structures.

The chapter starts with a small exploration of measures and approaches that aim to reduce packaging and to develop a more sustainable society. In section “Packaging-Free Supermarket,” the chapter then engages with a specific initiative as an example of what citizens and entrepreneurs can do: the packaging-free supermarket. It reports on the results of an investigation of shopping practices in a regular supermarket, an organic supermarket, and a packaging-free supermarket in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Leuven, Belgium. It asks the question: What would it take for customers of a regular supermarket to transfer their grocery shopping to a packaging-free supermarket? However, what to do as a citizen when no packaging-free supermarket is available? The section “Packaging-Free Shopping Without Packaging-Free Shop” reflects on an exercise of engaging in packaging-free grocery shopping in a place without a packaging-free shop. The chapter ends with a reflection on the role of practices and routines as well as sustainability exercises in everyday lives in lived or engaged sustainability.

The format of this chapter is different than that of the other chapters in this book. The book cover notes that “although there is much rhetoric about sustainability, very little has really been accomplished in addressing the issue at the practical level.” Yet, there have been some initiatives to reduce or abandon packaging materials, such as setting up packaging-free supermarkets. Such initiatives are rather small scale and hardly or not reported on in existing literature. To be able to address such issues as well, this chapter draws on research by and with a group of undergraduate students who investigated and engaged in lived sustainability themselves. In the course of a 5-month research project of the excellence program of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, they conducted observations, interviews, and participated in two (self-designed) exercises in the (academically largely unrecognized) field of packaging-free shopping (April 2016). This chapter draws and reflects on the information in the final report of this project: “The vision of packaging-free shopping” (Manovella et al. 2016).

Approaches for Sustainable Development: From Governance to Practice

There are many different measures and approaches aiming to develop a more sustainable society. Packaging companies have, for example, invested billions to recycle plastic. And indeed, it is tempting to “review the design and development of more efficient, less resource intensive products and technologies” (Shove 2003:395) when thinking about the environmental aspects of consumption. An example of the attempt to use less plastic for packaging was to use thinner plastic milk bottles which contained more recycled material (Laville 2017). These bottles did not prove sturdy enough and burst, creating more waste rather than less. As plastic can often not be recycled more than twice, it will end up polluting the world in the end. Despite efforts to recycle plastic, pollution is increasing rather than reduced.

There are also “simple” policy measures , regulations, and legislations, such as the EU Plastic Bags Directive . The Directive states that EU member states have to introduce national reduction targets and/or a price on plastic bags from April 2016 onward (European Parliament/Council 2015). This regulation is seen as necessary, because “in 2010, each EU citizen used an average of 198 plastic bags” and the trend is ascending (Barbiére 2015). This means “radical changes” (Barbiére 2015) for certain countries on the left side of Fig. 1, which illustrates how many plastic bags EU member states use.
Fig. 1

The use of plastic bags in the EU. (Retrieved from Barbiére 2015)

According to the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Karmenu Vella, such simple measures can have great effects:

In the EU we currently consume up to 200 bags per person, every year. Only about 7 % are recycled. Billions end up as litter across Europe, especially on our beaches and in the sea. This has serious environmental and economic effects. We need to tackle marine pollution, in particular microplastics. We need to save resources and move to a circular economy. Now it's up to the Member States to do their part. Some have already shown that simple measures can lead to big changes. (European Commission 2016)

And indeed, this Directive may help the reduction of plastic bags. Those who were interviewed and observed during the study this chapter reports on report that they already used to bring their own shopping bags to the supermarket even before the charges were introduced. Many declined a plastic bag for environmental reasons and were also unwilling to pay for a plastic bag. Nevertheless, the observations showed that the free thin plastic bags in supermarkets to collect fruit and vegetables were still used. In any case, plastic bags are only a small part of the plastic used in shopping and packaging.

Studies in science, technology, innovation, and society have developed and are developing other (academically based) approaches. These are less simple in the sense that they acknowledge the complexity of increasing sustainable development. Many groups of actors are involved at different levels, innovation trajectories are not linear, and not all consequences can be foreseen.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and transition management are two approaches that have gained increasing importance in the study of science, technology, innovation, and society as well as in policies. RRI can be discussed as a governance tool for science and innovation. It came out of a number of different discussions, approaches, and concerns such as the managing of science and innovations which are seen as ethically problematic such as genetically modified organisms and “an increasing awareness of the sometimes profound, global (and intergenerational) impacts of innovations in contemporary society” (Owen et al. 2012: 752). Often three features are distinguished. First is the idea that the purposes of research and innovation and their orientation toward the “right impacts” need to be subject to democratic governance. This means that the purposes of science, including developing a (more) sustainable society, cannot be decided by scientists alone. Rather, deciding on the direction and purposes of research should be a wide societal endeavor. Second, the process should be responsive. Approaches of anticipation, reflection, and deliberation of research and innovation and its directions should be integrated and institutionalized. The third feature revolves around responsibility as a collective activity with uncertain and unpredictable consequences (Owen et al. 2012). These consequences and the responsibility need to be continuously assessed.

Transition management was developed as a governance tool explicitly for sustainable development (Loorbach and Rotmans 2010). It outlines four very general principles, called the transition management cycle. These principles are:
  1. 1.

    Problem structuring, establishment of the transition arena, and envisioning

  2. 2.

    Developing images, coalitions, and transition agendas

  3. 3.

    Mobilizing actions and executing projects and experiments

  4. 4.

    Monitoring, evaluation, and learning

The approach has led to the development of transition policies in fields such as water management, building, and energy in the Netherlands, the UK, and Belgium.

Such governance approaches have also been criticized. The critique that is relevant and interesting for this chapter and book is the lack of attention of these approaches for practices and everyday lives of consumers . And yet “significant movement towards sustainability is likely to involve new expectations and understandings of everyday life and different forms of consumption and practice (Redclift 1996; Wilk 2002)” (Shove and Walker 2010: 471).

This chapter asks how consumers or citizens can engage in lived sustainability . This is important as much of domestic consumption takes place in practices in ordinary lives, which are often invisible (Shove 2003). Yet, these practices have consequences for sustainability. They matter. The above governance approaches tend to focus on the producers and those who govern, while consumers and practitioners are as important to change as producers (Shove 2003). Attention for practices dissolves the distinction between those who govern and those who are governed as all are part of practices.

Packaging-Free Supermarket

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “a process of change” whose implementation in all areas “must rest on political will” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, § 30). Political will is exercised through the adoption of top-down approaches, and the EU regulation to reduce the usage of plastic bags is an example of it (Barbiére 2015). Minami et al. (2010) recognized the existence of alternative approaches to pursue sustainable development. Packaging-free shops demonstrate how a community can initiate a “process of change” through a bottom-up approach . Several actors such the shop owners, suppliers, and customers have been mobilized to address the pressing issue of waste within the context of shopping. They identified the problem of waste and assessed the ways to reduce it. The reduction of the production of waste in our everyday practices, such as grocery shopping, as Minami et al. (2010: 3–8) suggest, is one way.

In 2007, the first packaging-free shop was opened in London. Later in Leuven, Belgium, three persons became increasingly frustrated with the amount of packaging they encountered on a regular shopping trip:

We were very frustrated when we went to the standard supermarkets and we got home and we unpackaged what we bought and our garbage bag would be filled already with plastic. (Shop owner 12-04-16)

They were starting to look for an alternative and discovered online that packaging-free supermarkets existed, in London and in Germany. The idea of developing a shop in Leuven without packaging was born. They managed to find a number of shareholders, people with similar environmental concerns and frustrations. Facebook was essential for this. They also managed to interest suppliers, such as a local farm and jam maker, who were willing to manage (or already managed) their business in line with environmental and social responsibility. Sometimes convincing suppliers to remove packaging was hard such as in the case of convincing the shampoo supplier to refill the bottles. The location was important as customers could park their car and would not have to walk far with their jars. It was a student area, and the shop owners were aware that students were supportive of this initiative. In December 2014, the shop was opened. The illustrations show what the packaging-free shop in Leuven looks like (Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10).
Fig. 2


Fig. 3

Bathing products in refillable containers

Fig. 4

Containers with seeds and nuts

Fig. 5

Containers with seeds and nuts covered in chocolate

Fig. 6

Different types of oil in refillable containers

Fig. 7

Glass container containing liqueur

Fig. 8


Fig. 9

Vegetables for free

Fig. 10

Glass container with pasta

With the existence of such a shop, it becomes important to understand people’s considerations for where to buy their groceries. Why do people shop in a packaging-free supermarket, an organic supermarket, or a regular supermarket? What makes a packaging-free supermarket different from a regular supermarket or an organic supermarket, and what does this mean for why people do their grocery shopping in such a shop? And, importantly, what would people need to change to start buying their groceries in a packaging-free supermarket rather than in a regular supermarket? This section reports on the interviews and observations that were conducted during the 5-month research project mentioned in the introduction.

Questions to the reader

• Have you ever reflected on where you do your shopping and why, specifically regarding issues of sustainability?

• Where do you do your shopping? And why?

• What would be reasons for you to go to a packaging-free supermarket and what would be your objections?

Comparing Shopping in Regular, Organic, and Packaging-Free Supermarkets

The 15 interviews as well as the observations that were conducted indicate that customers in the different shops have different priorities. While location is important for all customers (most tend to shop close to where they live, work, or study), customers who shop in an organic supermarket and a packaging-free supermarket are prepared to travel longer distances, especially for the packaging-free supermarket. They support the concept and like the shop. At the same time, they also shop in supermarkets closer to home. The location also matters for how frequently they shop. Most interviewees shop once or twice a week, but those living further away from the packaging-free supermarket often shop only once a month and then buy larger quantities.

Price is important for all customers and a reason for people to shop in a regular supermarket. The organic store and the packaging-free supermarket are slightly more expensive than the standard supermarket. A student in the packaging-free supermarket said:

I complete my general shopping in [name of regular supermarket], a Belgian supermarket, because it is cheaper and there are more options; if I only shopped in a packaging-free shop, I would have to change my lifestyle, which would be rather difficult as I am a student. I also cannot buy fresh cheese in the packaging-free shop. (Woman, 20s, PFS (packaging-free shop))

One customer remarks how she negotiates the price: “I usually buy in smaller quantities than I would buy in a normal supermarket as I try to have less expired food” (Woman, 40s, PFS). To attract customers, especially those on lower budgets such as students, they also provide discounts on older vegetables or nuts.

Another reason to go to an organic and packaging-free supermarket despite higher prices is that these customers value the quality of the food and the healthy lifestyle that it implicates. Very few of the interviewees in the standard supermarket mention that they specifically buy local or seasonal products or products that are organic, bio, or fair-trade. However, the interviews indicate that customers in the organic shop place great importance on the product to be organic, while those interviewed in the packaging-free supermarket appreciate that most of their products are seasonal, fair-trade, and locally produced.

When the packaging-free supermarket first opened, only local and seasonal products were sold. While this offer attracts customers, many customers were used to a wider variety of products. They would go to other supermarkets to buy, for example, fruit such as bananas that simply cannot be grown in Belgium. The shop owners made a compromise and included some products that were not locally grown, ensuring that they were fair-trade and marking up the prices slightly to favor the local products and keep their philosophy of packaging-free and mostly local products. This is important as the interviews show that the variety of products, as well as familiarity, is also a reason to shop in a particular supermarket. Supermarkets that have a wider variety of products enable customers to shop in one supermarket if they want, instead of having to shop in several different locations.

Checking labels for ingredients is an important part of the shopping practice for those who want to eat healthy and for those with allergies and intolerances. Knowing the supermarket and which products one can buy without always having to check these becomes even more important. How is this dealt with in a packaging-free supermarket? There are labels around the shop, which explicitly list the ingredients of the product. This can be seen in Figs. 4, 5, and 7, which show containers with seeds and nuts as well as a glass container with liqueur. Figure 6 shows containers containing different kinds of oil, the names of which are written on the containers. Furthermore, a sign was placed that invited the customers to ask the shop assistants any questions concerning ingredients, allergies, or expiry dates (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11

Ask shop assistants for ingredients, allergens, and expiry dates

When customers were specifically asked whether they checked the expiry date of products, one interviewee of the packaging-free supermarket replied “I’ve never had problems with the freshness in PFS” (Man, 30s, PFS). This illustrates that customers tend to trust the shop owners about the freshness of the products they sell. Furthermore, they rely more on their senses to assess the freshness of a product: “I can tell just by looking at the products to say whether I can still eat it or not” (Woman, 30s, PFS).

While location, prices, familiarity, quality, and variety are all important reasons to shop in a particular supermarket, there are some specific reasons for customers to go to a packaging-free shop. Many customers support the idea behind the shop and the initiative and consider the environmental impact of products. Both in regular supermarkets and in the organic store, many products, including fruit and vegetables, are wrapped in plastic. A reason for packaging organic products is to avoid fraud: stores selling standard products as organic.

In the regular supermarket, some interviewees mention “friendly shop assistants” (Woman, 40s, regular supermarket) and the comfortable design and organization of the shop and “not to mention the free coffee” (Woman, 60s, regular supermarket). The observations and interviews in the packaging-free shop indicate that customers know the shop owners and assistants and they often stay after they finish their shopping to have a chat with them. One woman enters the shop and firstly drinks a little (glass and reusable) bottle of lemonade before she commences with her shopping. Another one has been “talking to the owner of [name packaging-free supermarket] who showed her the different spices and they chatted about the different products for about five to ten minutes” (Woman, 40s, PFS). Taking one’s time seems to be as much a part of the experience as the packaging-free products themselves. The majority of the customers takes their time, looks at the different products carefully, checks the quality of the goods, talks to the owners, and asks them questions. Some customers have long chats with the owners and the interaction is part of the appeal of this kind of shop. In fact, when asked about the difference between standard supermarkets and the packaging-free supermarket, the most consistent answer was about how personal and friendly it is to shop in a place where you can talk to the owners. One woman states that it has “a more personal touch to them and you can chat to the owners, something you cannot do in a regular supermarket” (Woman, 40s, PFS), and another interviewee said “it is a much more personal experience in a packaging-free supermarket, you can taste the products, and you even get little things free if you buy a lot” (Woman, 20s, PFS).

Most customers in the organic and regular supermarket were not familiar with the concept of a packaging-free supermarket. Most were curious about the shop, the products, and the concept, and roughly half would be interested in shopping there for environmental reasons. However, there were also hesitations with regard to the variety of products, reasonable prices, and the location. Two interviewees state that there would need to be a “good variety of products” (Woman in her 50s and woman in her 40s, organic shop). A further two comment on the price, stating that they would only go to the packaging-free supermarket if it was not too expensive.

Another hesitation is related to considerations of (in)convenience. One student was worried about the transportation of containers and states that “the issue for me would be with liquids, as it would be quite challenging to bring my own containers with me when I shop” (Woman, 20s, regular supermarket). Most students in Maastricht use a bicycle as their main mode of transportation ; a car is often not available. Therefore, the transportation aspect could arguably be a large factor. Another interviewee states that she could “imagine that it is a hassle to bring that many containers, therefore I would not go there if I knew that I had a lot to buy” (Woman, 20s, regular supermarket).

Further comments included “it sounds difficult” (Woman, 40s, organic shop), “too complicated” (Woman, 60s, organic shop), and “not comfortable with idea” (Woman, 50s, organic shop). They anticipated spending more time on the process of shopping. A young student in her 20s turned this around. She remarked that she has to recycle “two full bags of plastic containers” every week (Woman, 20s, organic shop) and if she were to shop packaging-free, this would no longer be necessary. So although packaging-free shopping may be more time-consuming, one may also be able to save time elsewhere. However, when the focus is on shopping practices, other related practices are often not considered.

Customers further said to only buy/purchase certain products there such as pasta and rice, yet not “shampoo and things like that” (ibid.), and that hygiene would be compromised. One interviewee states, for example, that she would not buy meat from a packaging-free store, as they think it is “more hygienic” (Woman, 40s, organic shop) to have it prewrapped. And while a male interviewee agreed with the idea that the use of plastic is excessive, he considers packaging-free products as “over the top”: “why do avocados need to be wrapped in plastic? I think it’s pointless. But buying everything packaging-free is over the top, especially for hygienic reasons” (Man, 20s, regular supermarket). Another interviewee says that they “think it is wasteful that they are packaged in plastic but for some products I think I would prefer to buy them [in a standard supermarket]” (Woman, 70s, regular supermarket).

Questions to the reader

After reading this, would you be more or less inclined to shop in a packaging-free supermarket and what would be your considerations?

Challenging Conventions?

What does this all teach us? Environmental awareness is important in individual considerations for choosing where to buy groceries and sometimes for the willingness to make an extra effort such as traveling further. However, although small changes in practices and routines are acceptable, issues of convenience and maintaining existing practices are demonstrated too.

The packaging-free supermarket had to broaden its assortment with products that were not local or seasonal and therewith compromise the initial idea and philosophy. It had to accommodate existing expectations and demands of specific varieties of products to continue existing. It is apparently not easy or simple to change such expectations and practices, not for supermarkets and not for (the majority of) customers. In addition, even those who are willing to travel further to support a shop which operates in line with their environmental concerns needed to go to regular supermarkets due to, for example, demands for time in their everyday life.

An interesting question is: What would it take for customers of a regular supermarket to transfer their grocery shopping to a packaging-free shop? A packaging-free supermarket tries to go beyond developing “more efficient, less resource intensive products” (Shove 2003:395). It requires packaging-free transport , customers to bring their own containers, and suppliers willing to supply packaging-free or reuse the packaging. Yet, the supermarket and the customers are part of and subject to other structures, practices, and expectations. It seems as if a packaging-free shop can be successful as long as it neatly fits into peoples’ and society’s existing everyday lives and practices.

Convenience matters . And something is regarded as convenient if it fits in with existing practices and routines . Changes in time required for shopping, in mode of transportation, the organization that shopping requires in terms of bags and transportation, the price of the products, and norms of hygiene are mentioned as obstacles to consider shopping in a packaging-free supermarket. While the concept of a packaging-free supermarket is broadly supported, an anticipated change of practices and with that reorganization of other aspects of one’s everyday life is not. This attachment to routines and convenience is also present among the customers of the packaging-free supermarket, even though they may have incorporated a once-a-month trip to the supermarket rather than shopping twice a week. Customers of the packaging-free supermarket stated that they might have difficulties to commit to packaging-free shopping without a packaging-free supermarket, thus showing the convenience of having a store where a variety of unpackaged products are offered.

This is in line with the idea that “domestic consumption and practice and intimately links in reproducing what people take to be normal and, for them, ordinary ways of life” (Shove 2003: 395). The packaging-free supermarket is a very valuable initiative with regard to sustainability that shows that there is more than rhetoric to sustainability and that deserves more attention. It is important to realize which initiatives exist, what they do, and how they relate to engaging with sustainability in everyday lives for ordinary citizens. In this case, the packaging-free supermarket seems to “work” as long as it is (largely) in line with existing conventions and practices and is an example of ‘seeking more environmentally friendly ways of meeting given levels of service and of “eco-modernizing” society (Spaargaren, 1977)’ (Shove 2003: 396). It goes beyond a focus on more efficient and less resource intensive projects (Shove 2003) and does not take “future demand and consumption as foregone conclusions” (Hand et al. 2005: 1). If packaging-free supermarkets would be nearby and budgets and modes of transportation would allow it, we can rather “simply” stop purchasing packaged groceries. However, it does not challenge the conventions or change habits significantly, while one could argue that “changing conventions and expectations have far reaching implications for the resources required to sustain and maintain them” (Shove 2003: 395–396).

Packaging-Free Shopping Without Packaging-Free Shop

Although the problems related to the waste of packaged products are clear, packaging-free shops are not mainstream. What would happen if we decide to embark on a packaging-free lifestyle and to “simply” stop buying packaged groceries? How simple would this be?

To engage in packaging-free shopping, in a world in which packaging is rather abundant, means challenging and changing one’s own routines and practices as well as societal norms. This section engages with an exercise in packaging-free shopping in a city or region without a packaging-free supermarket. This exercise was inspired by the Clean Bin Project, in which three participants decide to live without any waste, including packaging, for a year. Through this exercise, the practices and challenges of packaging-free shopping are explored as well as the societal norms involved with shopping and packaging.

First, the setup of the exercise is described. Then reflections of the participants are discussed in relation to the two parts of the exercise: (1) shopping packaging-free which often resulted in avoiding packaged materials and (2) actively challenging conventions of packaging as a breaching experiment . And lastly this section discusses whether packaging-free shopping is regarded to be sustainable.

Setup of Exercise

The task of the exercise was twofold. The first task was to shop or even live packaging-free for 2 weeks, with a main focus on grocery shopping. The second task was to keep a diary of the experience of packaging-free shopping including thoughts, choices, trade-offs, feelings, and challenges and describe these in detail. In this second task, the participant becomes a researcher, both of own routines and practices and of broader societal norms. The following set of questions helped to give direction to the diary:

What food (and nonfood) did you set out to buy?

Where did you go (city, shop)? Is this/are these the places where you normally go? What did you realize with regard to these places looking through the lens of packaging-free shopping? Did you have a choice between packaged and unpackaged? Were you able to buy the product(s) that you wanted unpackaged?

Did you buy different products than you set out to buy because they were unpackaged, and which ones? How did you have to adjust your plans/dinner/daily routines to use the new product(s)? What would you normally have done and what did you have to change?

If you went to a shop/supplier you don’t normally go, how did you decide and inform yourself on where to go?

How did your shopping experience in the new place differ from where you normally go? How did you go about finding your product(s) in the new place? Were they easy to locate? What did you have to do differently to bring them home now that they were not packaged? Were there things you (dis)liked more in buying and using packaging-free products?

Did you decide to buy a packaged product after all? If so, why?

Can you describe your thoughts and feelings during your shopping experience today? (e.g., annoyed because I could not find the product, had to switch plans for dinner, was in a hurry; excited and nice to go to a new place; not knowing where to find a product in a new place; happy with a nice response; missing some ingredients while cooking at home)

Why did you decide to buy your groceries at this time of the day? How does that relate to timing in your work and/or personal life? (e.g., after work, just before collecting children from school, a calm time at the supermarket, lunch break, etc.) Is this when you normally shop? Why (not)? Did the time of the day matter for how you felt during your shopping experience?

What were the responses you encountered? (e.g., when asking for packaging-free products)

Note to the reader

You are invited and encouraged to join into this practice exercise to experience packaging-free shopping yourself. This helps you to become aware of your own routines and practices as well as societal norms in your environment. Routines, practices, and societal norms may differ between different cities, regions, and parts of the world as well as other factors such as family situations, common modes of transportation, the location of shops, frequencies of food shopping, etc. specific issues encountered below as shown in the reflections are context-dependent such as biking as a common (sustainable) means of transportation (and shopping) in the Netherlands.

• How would you go about this?

• Which changes in your normal practices do you anticipate?

Experiencing Packaging-Free Shopping Without Packaging-Free Shop

The exercise clearly showed how changing one aspect of one’s daily life had consequences for other parts of daily life. To shop packaging-free, participants had to change a number of their practices and routines . Which changes in routines and habits were observed? And which factors were important for a(n) (un)successful exercise? The ultimate question for the participants in the end was: Can this lifestyle be sustained?

A first important factor the participants noted was the importance of time and in particular an increase in shopping time . Every practice requires a certain amount of time. The introduction of a new practice may result in a shift of time prioritization in relation to other activities/practices. Packaging-free shopping in a place without packaging-free shop is time-consuming as there is a need to alternate between stores for products that are available unpackaged. The prospects of needing more time had been a reason for potential participants not to engage in the exercise “due to lack of time” (Participant 4). One participant reported that she had to go to the city center to purchase cheese unpackaged but that she “does not have time to go there every time [she] wants to buy cheese” (Participant 8).

In addition, participants spent much time searching for unpackaged products and comparing between products. This mostly occurred at the beginning: Once the “shopping was more routinized” (Participant 4), this increase of time was reduced. For example, all participants integrated shopping at the market, as it is a place where loose fruit and vegetables can be purchased. This resulted in participants waiting for the market despite having “need to do the big grocery shopping for the last 2–3 days” and thus changing their shopping timing and schedule to integrate this new practice (Participant 5). They added new locations but also changed how and when they did their shopping.

In order to avoid packaging successfully, all participants of the experiment mentioned the necessity of planning, making sure to always bring cotton bags, reusable plastic bags, as well as containers. A lack of preparation also leads to failures in packaging-free lifestyles, such as forgetting to bring a cup to the library for the coffee machine and then having no other option except to take an un-reusable paper cup (Participant 2). Another participant reported how she had to reorganize when she forgot one’s “coffee mug” and had to drink the “coffee in the café” instead of taking it away (Participant 1).

Although participants felt generally “satisfied” when the goal of unpackaged shopping was achieved and their preparation had worked out, this was not always the case. An example is the report of a participant who took a sandwich from home and later had to “[carry] an empty box” which was conceived as “annoying,” since under normal circumstances the “packages of the sandwich would have been disposed” (Participant 1).

The habit of cooking and the time needed for cooking were in some cases directly impacted by the exercise. For example, the alternative to purchasing a ready-made sauce pasta sauce in a jar (which would disrupt the packaging-free experiment) is to make one’s own sauce. The participants had to purchase the raw ingredients individually (such as tomatoes, garlic, and onion) and thus create less waste through packaging. However, this alternative does require more time and thus affects the shopping and cooking process and schedule of the individual (Participant 3). It also stresses the different skills and (re)learning involved in the practice of making tomato sauce.

A packaging-free lifestyle further resulted in changing their regular eating habits . When one could not buy the product without packaging, some participants substituted the products or sometimes they did not buy it at all. For instance, for the duration of the experiment, one participant did not eat pizza from the freezer as usual on Fridays because it is packaged (Participant 7). Another participant became vegan for 2 weeks, as milk could not be bought unpackaged (Participant 2).

In addition, participants were required to adjust to and compromise on the quantity and price of the products. The participants experienced costly shopping when it comes to handmade hygiene products, food such as “chocolate” (Participant 4), “meat” (Participant 8), and “environmental friendly” products (Participant 7). One participant notes on the higher price of environmental friendly washing-up liquid: “(…) it is quite pricy compared to the one I would choose if I were not making a special effort” (Participant 7). High prices were at times a reason for not buying something (Participant 1).

In cases in which there was no packaging-free option, all participants choose the larger quantity of a product in order to buy ahead, to save time throughout the week and produce less packaging-waste overall (Participant 4; Participant 7). One participant decided to buy a larger packet of “rice to reduce waste,” for example, instead of “two smaller packages of rice” for these 2 weeks (Participant 4). Some participants also bought more products than usual as the shopping process is time-consuming (Participant 2; Participant 7) or because the shop that offered a packaging-free product required them to do so, for instance, when “buying oats” (Participant 3). Moreover, as the market opens only once a week, it was necessary to buy more products at once (Participant 8). However, sometimes the participants involuntarily had to take a smaller amount as the packaging-free product would “not have fit in the container” as in the case of buying cheese at the market (Participant 1).

It became clear that trade-offs had to be made between packaging-free shopping and other aspects of sustainability. There are various examples of this. First, as participants viewed it as essential to buy more or different products in one shopping trip or to go to shops further away, a different mode of transportation would be needed or certainly be more convenient. For example, to avoid plastic, a participant purchased glass bottles of water as an alternative. She highlighted that due to the increased weight, this could prove to be an obstacle “for those, who do not have a car or cannot drive or cycle” (Participant 4). And if a store was “too far located,” a lack of time prevented it from being a potential shopping choice (Participant 4). Although normally, a person would be most likely to go shopping in a store that was most close to their home, in order to avoid packaging, the participants integrated several new stores into their shopping trips. This would mean that participants who now walked or cycled to the shops would have to buy or at least drive a car. Yet, driving a car is much less sustainable than walking or cycling. Participants had to consider questions about what was worse: buying packaged products or driving cars. Second, arguably buying larger amounts of products could result on more food going to waste. Third, trade-offs were seen between, e.g., biological products and unpackaged products. One participant wanted to buy kiwis, but as “they were in a paper box and wrapped in plastic,” the decision made was to buy bananas instead. However, “bio-bananas” were packaged so the participant “bought bananas of the brand […]” (Participant 1). The brand name is taken away in the quote, but different banana companies are known to deal differently with issues such as workers’ rights, environmental protection, collaborating with, e.g., paramilitary in certain countries, etc. This shows the potential consequences and potential controversy of the aim of packaging-free shopping in order to reduce waste in one’s own household. One might end up supporting a company which offers its products packaging-free but operates under nontransparent business policies.

Breaching Experiment

To take the exercise one step further, participants engaged in a (further) breaching experiment. The purpose of a breaching experiment is to challenge socially constructed norms present in everyday life. The theoretical basis of breaching experiments is ethnomethodology, a study of methods which looks at the norms that are taken for granted within society (Boes 2009). It focuses on the norms which are entrenched in people’s doings by creating the conditions for an unexpected event which will break these same social norms and highlight peoples’ reactions. Engaging in packaging-free shopping as such is – to some extent – a breaching experiment. This second part of the exercise entailed forgoing packaging within a specific situation, one where demanding packaging-free food is considered to act directly against existing social norms. Peoples’ lives are organized by social norms and have an interest in maintaining these. However, they are also able to adapt to experiences that do not align with what they normally experience (Garfinkel 1962), which is what breaching experiments explore.

The aim of this experiment was to see how understanding and accommodating our society would be toward someone trying to live a packaging-free lifestyle as well as identifying the social norms we often do not even notice. The participants went to shops and take-away venues where the respective products are routinely packaged. The breaching experiments were conducted within the same time frame as the packaging-free experiments. The participants were asked to write down their experiences, including what was requested and the reaction to the request. This section focuses on the experiences of the participants and particularly the responses they encountered.

Questions to the reader

What reactions would you expect if you would go to a take-away and request for the food and drinks to be put in a brought container?

What feelings would you expect to have when participating in such an experiment?

What happened when you did this?

To the surprise of the participants, who had been a little anxious about this experiment, not knowing what responses they would encounter, many reactions were positive. In a small take-away, the reaction was one of interest in the project and approval as the man working there felt that too much plastic was being used (Participant 3). In a chips shop, the owners approved the request of the participant in using her own container immediately, implying that they are used to this kind of demand (Participant 4). The owner of a Moroccan deli was especially accommodating when asked to store the food in the container the participant brought herself. This container was heavier than the plastic container handed out by the deli and the owner weighed the container beforehand to avoid having the participant overpay for her food due to a heavier container (Participant 2). Also at the market, a participant was told they were doing a “good job” for bringing their own bag to the market. This encouragement occurred again when the man at the market stand even said “good! We don’t want to use so many bags” (Participant 3). This demonstrates that the effort to live a packaging-free lifestyle is appreciated by many.

Other responses were “neutral,” even if the cashier experienced certain difficulties – such as picking up the fruit separately to weigh them at the till as they were not in a plastic bag – “she did not complain and went on weighting all the things I bought” (Participant 4; Participant 3). There were also requests that led to confusion, such as the request to not wrap a sandwich and simply hand it to the participant directly “was not a problem, although they did seem a little confused” (Participant 1).

However, the request of participants was sometimes also refused or negotiated. In a fast-food chain, after consulting with the manager, the woman at the till explained that it was not possible to bring one’s own container into the kitchen as “there are hygiene regulations which do not allow [name chain] workers to bring into the kitchens tools which are not from the kitchen itself” and that it was also not possible to buy a drink with one’s own cup (Participant 4). A compromise was reached, with the fries being deposited straight onto the tray instead of in a package, but the drink was not poured into the cup brought by the participant. The woman working in the fast-food chain seemed slightly shocked, while the manager was extremely surprised. Hygienic reasons are mentioned for rejecting a request to hand out food unpackaged. This also occurred when one participant “asked the shop assistant if [she] could get the cheese in [her] own container” and when the “the shop assistant at the counter in the supermarket refused to hand out meat without packaging” (Participant 8).

Participants sometimes experienced an “uncomfortable feeling. ” For example, while buying fish, one participant tried to explain to the seller that packaging was not needed because the participant brought the container. The seller agreed, but in the end the fish was packaged in the container. This participant reported that “this wasn’t what I had intended to happen, but I didn’t want to confuse her more, so I said thank you and left when she handed the box back to me” (Participant 1). Sometimes the expectation of an uncomfortable feeling led to an early end to the experiment. For example, one participant planned to reuse a pizza box (Participant 6) but in the end decided not to as she “did not want to hear their [the people working at the pizzeria] jokes” (Participant 6). Discomfort was also experienced when “other people had to wait patiently” as the cashier had to go to the backroom in order to fill a jar with oats, as this was not a standard request and “thus the employees were not as fast and efficient as they would be with other requests” (Participant 3).

What does this experiment teach us? First, that a concern about packaging seems quite widely shared – at least in the place of the experiment – and many are happy to see and encourage people’s initiatives. Second, that even if people are willing to accommodate requests for packaging-free products, it may be difficult to do so. People have habits of packaging as the example of the fish seller showed, and habits are sometimes difficult to change as the example in the introduction of this chapter also illustrates. Changing habits may also raise uncomfortable feelings. And there are regulations and norms of, e.g., hygiene which oppose the ideal of packaging-free shopping. Third, that asking for something outside of what is regarded as “normal” is difficult and can raise feelings of anxiety and discomfort. In a society in which packaging is the norm, this social norm and the human desire to belong may make it difficult to challenge and change this. Requesting non-packaged products can be considered as going against other societal norms such as efficiency and not wanting to be a burden. At the same time, there are also rather widely shared environmental concerns and norms of politeness, such as treating customers respectfully even if each apple has to be weighed individually, which may facilitate packaging-free shopping. And fourth, there seemed to be difference in responses between smaller privately owned places and large chains. The latter may have stricter rules as they employ a large number of people and may have a larger need of standardizing their procedures. Initiatives that depart from the standardized expectations may be difficult to accommodate. Perhaps the smaller places tend to invest more in personal relationships with their customers as that may be a reason for why customers return, whereas chains have other ways of attracting customers – their customer know what they will get even if they come from different countries.

Sustaining Packaging-Free Shopping? A Practice to Be Sustained?

During the experiment, there were times when the participants felt “frustrated” when no alternative option seemed available or they experienced choices regarded as “contradictory” (Participant 3), such as the choice between a packaged biological product and the same product unpackaged. They also felt uncomfortable in certain situations. In addition, shopping packaging-free had proven to be time-consuming , particularly at the beginning of the experiment. Each shopping trip needed to be planned in advance, as bags or containers are necessary to purchase and carry the products. Furthermore, to avoid the packaged products from standard supermarkets, the participants had to split their purchases across several stores. The additional time that packaging-free shopping implied was perceived as a problem that, in some instances, could prevent them from looking for packaging-free options. Prices were also seen as an issue. In some cases, unpackaged products were more expensive than the packaged option “leading us to either give up on our plan to shop packaging-free or to make a financial sacrifice” (Manovella et al. 2016: 137).

However, they report: “Despite the difficulties we encountered, the experiment also revealed pleasant surprises ” (Ibid.). Through the experiment, they explored places where they could buy products unpackaged. The market was, according to the majority of the participants, the most pleasant discovery. Fruits and vegetables were cheaper than in standard supermarkets and packaging was, in most cases, easily avoidable. When the goal of unpackaged shopping was achieved, the participants described that they felt “satisfied” (Participant 3): “the satisfaction that we draw from having successfully avoided packaging or from the encouraging comments we received from the vendors we approached appeared as a reward” (Manovella et al. 2016: 138). These positive aspects were shared with others in order to encourage them to act similarly, for example, “to use menstruation cups” instead of one-time female hygienic articles (Participant 5). The positive experiences and feelings encouraged creativity among the participants.

Nevertheless, these rewards do not seem to be sufficient to encourage participants to live a life of zero waste. All the participants were aware of the impact their choices have on waste production. After the experiment, the intention to continue avoiding certain packages was displayed. Some liked the adaptations they made and may maintain them, for example when it comes to the consumption of more tap water than mineral water in plastic bottles in order to save packaging-waste (Participant 8). However, a complete zero-waste lifestyle was described as “utopian” (Participant 8), “tiresome” (Participant 6), and “stressful” (Participant 4). One participant concluded that “less packaging means less “comfortableness” (Participant 2). The limited choice “can be frustrating in the long run as it gets monotonous” (Participant 3). Packaging-free shopping is not “worth the extra effort, finances, and time ” and it is ultimately an “unrealistic way to live” (Participant 7). The positive aspects were not sufficient for these participants to commit to long-term packaging-free shopping although they may make different choices regarding some products and customs.

Even for these participants, who were keen on living an environmentally friendly life, this lifestyle was difficult to uphold. As in the case of the packaging-free supermarket, the exercise and experiment clearly show how the participants tried to maintain their normal lives and practices: finding substitutes for the things they normally consume and spending no more time and effort on shopping than they normally do. Spending more time on shopping and cooking would interfere with other practices which would have to be changed in turn as well. They would have less time for study or meeting friends or would perhaps need to change practices. An example of this may be to combine activities and practices that were first separated, such as making cooking time a time to spend with friends instead of first cooking and then spending time with friends. Yet, such changes in practices were not regarded as sustainable. Packaging-free shopping was considered as doable as long as it did not interfere (too much) with everyday routines and practices.

Wrapping Up: Reflections and Conclusions

This chapter started by outlining the commonly acknowledged problem of waste and in particular plastic . Much of this waste comes from food packaging . Yet, despite the wide recognition for the problem, so far the amount of plastic only grows. Measures are being taken such as investments in recycling by companies and the EU Plastic Bags Directive. Also other governance approaches focus on moving our society toward a more sustainable society, acknowledging the complexity that this brings. When it comes to citizen level, researchers often regard green consumption as “an expression of individual environmental commitment” (Shove 2003: 395). However, this overlooks a more sociological perspective on everyday life and sustainability as Elizabeth Shove outlines.

This chapter has shown that environmental awareness has made it possible for packaging-free supermarkets to exist. Environmental awareness plays a role in how customers prioritize between, for example, the price of products and their environmental friendliness. It has also demonstrated that most people are supportive of the idea to reduce waste and packaging. Yet, in line with Shove, it has also shown that a more sustainable way of life does not only depend on green beliefs. Changes in sustainability practices do not “simply” follow from increasing environmental awareness or rational choices. It is crucial to also consider the practices of everyday life. Why? It is because our habitual, customary ways of doing something are difficult to change and interconnect with other practices.

The section on the packaging-free supermarket showed how customers to a large extent maintain their everyday routine practices. This chapter further engaged with an exercise of packaging-free shopping , which did not fit neatly with the participants’ everyday lives, with their ideas of convenience and comfort . Participants had to make changes to their routines and habits in order to sustain a packaging-free lifestyle. For some, a normal way of cooking included the use of ready-made packaged tomato sauce. This ties in with issues of convenience. It may also tie in with a way of life in which there is not much time for cooking. Changing to a packaging-free lifestyle implied changes in cooking and eating practices as well as diets. It implies shopping in different manners and at different times, which may have implications for other practices and activities such as work or visiting friends. Such changes were often considered as frustrating or disturbing of “normal” life. The chapter showed that it is important to understand “clusters of practice” and how these evolve as well as are held together (Shove 2003: 408).

This chapter has thus demonstrated that it is very difficult to “simply” stop buying packaged groceries and change to a packaging-free lifestyle. Even those who were willing to make changes because of environmental considerations did not see a packaging-free lifestyle as a practice they could sustain. Practices are interconnected with other practices and norms, and these are not bound to individuals. They are often institutionalized as normal activities. Also environmental policies “routinely take existing commitments and ‘ways of life’ for granted” (Hand et al. 2005: 1). However, as these normal activities are closely tied in to and have consequences for sustainability, Shove argues that the environmental challenge is then not one of “simply” creating environmental awareness but one of “understanding how meanings and practices of comfort, cleanliness, and convenience (or comparable services like the provision of a ‘normal’ diet or ‘normal’ forms of mobility) fall into the realm of the taken for granted, and how they change” (Shove 2003: 396). And that we need to understand the consequences of such changes for sustainability.

Understanding how practices become “normal” and analyzing their transformations (Hand et al. 2005) may lead to opportunities to intervene. Intervening would then not focus (only) on the use of packaging, water, or energy as isolated resources but on practices like those of shopping, eating, cooking, heating, and showering. It is within these practices that resources are consumed and given specific meanings. Such practices include associated technologies, materials and infrastructures (such as supermarkets, transportation, shopping bags), conventions, meanings and ideas (such as hygiene and convenience), and temporal orders in everyday life (Hand et al. 2005).

To live a life of engaged sustainability , a first step is investigating the practices we engage in and their relation to sustainability. This is not a task for researchers only. Exercises such as the one discussed in this chapter may be a useful tool to investigate and understand practices and the interconnections between them as well as often invisible social norms that help to shape and maintain such practices. Such exercises are exercises in lived sustainability at the same time and especially worthwhile if they lead to discussions and reflections among participants. This has been the case for the participants in this project, undergraduate students interested in sustainable lifestyles. And to some extent you, the reader, have accompanied us on this road as well.

Such exercises thus help us to gain new understandings of the relations between (interconnected) practices and sustainability and may lead to insights for intervention. While we are in the process of investigating and understanding, such exercises lead to experiences with lived sustainability . This in itself is worthwhile as “pro-environmental behavior change is more likely to endure in the long term if it is rooted in, and driven by, significant and meaningful experience” (Maiteny 2002: 299). Mainteny argues that “it is essential that pro-environmental behavior change initiatives work with experience and not simply continue to assume that information alone stimulates such change” (Ibid).

Changes in practices may be felt as disturbing “normal” life but also offers opportunities as recognized by the participants: pleasant discoveries, learning of new (or old) skills such as in the case of making tomato sauce from scratch, a reconsideration of what one values in life, and shifts in time spent on activities (investing more time in shopping packaging-free may reduce time needed for taking out the garbage, buying garbage bags, etc.). These practices may be sustained by participants. Such small changes in lives of (small groups of) individuals do not (immediately) change larger societal practices, structures, and norms. Some even claim that engaging in small feel-good efforts to live more sustainably leads to the problem that nobody is doing anything that matters on a larger scale (e.g., Slavoj Zizek). This chapter has another take on it. Small changes matter as well and can perhaps, in one way or another, become a diver of change for larger societal practices and norms with positive consequences for sustainability.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Department of Technology & Society StudiesMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands

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