How One Business Diverted 8,000 Plastic Bottles From Landfills
If turning to niche products and services can help small businesses find success in the global marketplace, why not apply the same tactic to saving the planet? Vancouver’s The Soap Dispensary is already putting that concept to the test, and the results are promising. The family-owned business hasn’t just grown into a thriving enterprise — it’s done so while educating consumers on ways to reduce their use of plastic and other packaging materials.
Reducing by Refilling
“Not a lot of people know that while they may feel good about recycling plastic, recycling is not 100 percent,” said Linh Truong, who owns The Soap Dispensary with her husband, Stewart Lampe. “It’s dependent on the market. If there is no demand for recycled plastic, some of that ends up back in the landfill.”
In fact, of the 33.6 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year, only 6.5 percent makes it to the recycling plant. Much of the plastic that ends up in landfills consists of packaging from soaps. For Truong and Lampe, this was both a business opportunity and a chance to make a positive environmental impact.
Rather than tossing or recycling their old containers, customers at the cozy storefront on Vancouver’s Main Street can simply refill them again and again. According to Truong, it’s a service that many people didn’t realize they wanted. After being in business only two years, the shop has diverted more than 8,000 containers from landfills through refills.
“We have customers who come in and say, ‘I’m so sick and tired of throwing out yet another bottle,’ ” she said.
Making DIY Pay
Plastic waste isn’t the only way soap consumption negatively impacts the environment. Toxic chemicals are present in many soaps, and The Soap Dispensary has expanded its focus to help consumers avoid them. The small business not only carries soaps made without harsh chemicals, they also host workshops teaching customers how to make their own safe soaps at home.
“I love workshops in my own personal life,” Troung said. “I like learning now to make my own things, and I wanted to use my store as a bit of a community hub where people could come and share in the same interests.”
Does teaching customers how to make their own non-toxic soaps negatively impact a soap store? Not if they also carry the raw ingredients needed to make them, which Troung also happens to do.
Behind the Scenes Sustainability
Because The Soap Dispensary works hard to inspire customers to be more environmentally conscious, the store stands to lose a lot of credibility if it doesn’t take its own advice. Even in areas hidden to her customers, Troung does her best to make her business tread as lightly on the earth as possible.
“We try to practice what we preach,” she said. “We wash the containers we get from suppliers and ship them back so they can reuse them. We also, wherever possible, tell our suppliers to ship us products in more sustainable packaging.”
Though it might not occur to many small business owners to make such a request, Troung has found a way to encourage suppliers to be more accommodating.
“Well, I harass them,” she laughed. “They probably roll their eyes every time they get an email from me, but it’s good to be in communication with your supplier. And if more small businesses make the request, maybe they will change for everyone.”
The Power of Collective Action
If there’s one thing Troung has learned at The Soap Dispensary, it’s the power of collective impact. To inspire her customers, she tracks the environmental benefit of each shopper’s purchases. Throwing a plastic container away might be tempting in a pinch, but Troung has found that contributing to a personal and collective tally adds incentive to conserve.
“It does make a difference when you count it all together,” Troung said. “It’s impressive to know that number.”
Therein lies the power of a single niche business with an emphasis on sustainability: doing one thing really well can have a serious impact on a much larger issue. And, Troung said, it’s already having a big impact on her customers.
“We were closed for a few days for Christmas, and I’ve had so many people say, ‘I ran out and I haven’t been doing dishes until you opened,’ or ‘I’ve being bathing with dish soap.’”
Opportunities for businesses to create environmentally friendly niches aren’t just limited to the soap world. Retailers of almost any product with packaging can inspire customers by cutting back, Troung noted. Even eliminating shopping bags can make a difference.
“Refilling soap is just one way to do it,” she said. “It’s just the art of shifting consumers’ mentality. Once you start that shift, it can be applied to lots of other things in their lives, and also to how a business is run.”
Content Courtesy of: Forbes