Sustainable Haus Mercantile, in Summit, N.J., is a small store with a big mission. It is trying to gently persuade every customer who walks through its door, or visits its website, to change their consumption habits, one shampoo bottle, one laundry detergent jug, one roll of paper towels, at a time.
The store, which opened in early 2020, is one of a growing number of plastic-free, package-free, and zero-waste stores springing up to address the billions of tons of waste generated by the most common retail purchases.
It’s a movement that has made inroads into mainstream merchants. Target
A search for plastic-free on Amazon
But Sustainable Haus Mercantile, and its owner, Janette Spiezio, take sustainability to the next level. Spiezio makes many of the products sold in her store, including laundry detergent, soaps, various cleaning products, and reusable replacements for napkins and paper towels, eliminating the environmental impact of shipping associated with ordering those products from a wholesaler. Her local customers like knowing they can walk to her store to refill their reusable shampoo, sunscreen, or detergent bottles and keep their money in the local economy.
“I could buy those [reusable food storage] stasher bags on Amazon, but I’d rather give my money to Janette than Jeff Bezos,” said Sustainable Haus Mercantile customer Megan Vartan.
Vartan, 28, said she had been trying to eliminate single-use plastics and other disposables from her life, but it wasn’t until Sustainable Haus opened near her home in Summit that it became easy to make those changes.
“They sell a lifestyle and a way to make a ripple effect change in your life,” Vartan said. “Every time I run out of a plastic product, I just find a better solution there,” she said.
There are a growing number of consumers around the world who think like Vartan. The 2020 PwC Global Consumer Insights Survey found that 45% of consumers said they avoid the use of plastic whenever possible, and 41% want retailers to eliminate plastic bags and packaging for perishable items.
Litterless, a zero-waste resource website, lists hundreds of stores across the country – in each of the 50 states – that are selling package-free bulk groceries and beauty and cleaning supplies that customers can place in reusable containers.
Jurrien Swarts, CEO and co-founder of sustainable beverage and food container brand Stojo, said its products are designed to “help shift consumer behavior, one person at a time.”
Stojo was born in 2012, after Swarts and co-founder Alex Abrams, who were working in finance at the time, and throwing out as many as five disposable takeout coffee cups a day, created a collapsible, leak-proof reusable coffee cup that could fit in a pocket when not in use.
It has since grown into a line of collapsible food containers sold online and at Target, Whole Foods, Anthropologie, and other retailers.
Stojo estimates that for every year they are in use, each individual Stojo cup, bottle or bowl saves one gallon of water, 16 lbs of solid waste, and 23 lbs of greenhouse gas emissions.
Swarts said he envisions a future where reusables will be part of an increasingly circular ecnomoy, where companies “provide end-of-life services to take back products from consumers and ensure the product is up-cycled into something else,” and where food service companies, cosmetics brands, and groceries stores provide consumers with reusable containers “designed to be returned to the seller, washed, reused.”
Sustainable Haus Mercantile’s Janette Spiezio opened her store in early 2020, a few years after she retired from 30 years in a corporate job with a Fortune 500 company.
Previously, she had started making her own laundry detergent – “I wasn’t comfortable that my ‘green’ laundry detergent was actually green,” she said. In 2018, she began selling it, along with her homemade soaps and napkins made from repurposed vintage fabrics and clothing, at farmers markets in New Jersey suburbs.
Her store opened in February 2020, only to have to close to customers a month later due to the pandemic. She pivoted to making cotton masks, and sales of those, along with online salesand curbside pickups, kept her in business until pandemic shutdowns were lifted.
In addition to the products she sells, she is making her store a base for sustainability by partnering with recycling pioneer Terracycle on seven recycling programs, she accepts compost dropoffs for the Java’s Compost company, she offers knife sharpening and dish rental services, and she is working on a campaign to bring Deliver Zero – a company that supplies reusable, returnable takeout containers to restaurants in Summit and other New Jersey towns.
And, Spiezio said, she has also created a sustainable business model. The store is making a profit, which is being invested in store improvements. Spiezio bought the building where the store is located.
But she acknowledges that trying to change ingrained habits can be a heavy lift. “Going zero waste is new for most people,” she said. “We’re here to teach people.”
Her customers say they are learning, and buying.
“Janette has got me to think a lot more about things,” said Caroline Sullivan, a Summit mother of two teenagers and a 20-year old. “She shares her experiences of what she’s done, and that gets me comfortable then to say ‘Maybe I’ll try that too’.”
She has been able to convert her family to using refillable shampoos, conditioners, and body washes sold at the store, which use cleaner ingredients than the mass retail brands they previously purchased.
Mary O’Malley worked for the same corporation as Spiezio, and O’Malley was chief environmental officer at that company. Spiezio, she said, was always interested in all things environmental, and they used to talk frequently. O’Malley shopped with Spiezio at the farmers markets, and was eager to see what she could offer in a store.
She now buys a number of products there, including bar dishwashing soap and dishwasher pods, which she says are “as effective if not more” as the non-sustainable versions she used to buy, beauty products, and silicone replacements for plastic containers.
“It’s a very thoughtful product line,” O’Malley said.
As a former chief environmental officer, O’Malley is sensitive to green-washing by retailers, so when shopping she looks for products that are “reliably green,” rather than simply marketed as such.
“My theory is that the world we live in becomes much more environmentally sensible one small decision at a time,” O’Malley said. “You take one step, and you say ‘Geez that wasn’t that painful’,” she said.
“You make these little decisions along the way and all of a sudden you’re a green consumer. And you’re recycling. And you have a compost pile in the back. Just little things at a time,” she said.
And that is how, little by little, mass merchants and supermarkets who are slow to embrace sustainability could end up losing market share to stores like Sustainable Haus Mercantile.