How I Started a
Zero Waste Refill Store
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Steph Van de Pette and I am the founder of SO Sustainable. We are a zero waste refill store based in Watlington, Oxfordshire. We sell organic whole foods, natural cleaning, health & beauty products, sustainable lifestyle alternatives and gifts.
At the moment we operate from home, selling from what used to be known as our dining room! Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we had been undertaking monthly popup shops in a number of local village centres. Since then, we have had to adapt and operate differently.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
By trade, I am a Chartered Environmentalist. For the past 10 years, I have worked for large construction companies and in consultancy, advising and managing the environmental impact of various sized projects. Our impact on the natural world has always concerned me, and I have long felt that modern lifestyles have become too far removed, in some cases, from the natural rhythm of things.
Whilst on maternity leave, I joined my local parish council as a volunteer (something I’ve always been keen about). This led me to become deeply involved with the local community. I feel in love with our thriving independent high street. I also joined our local business association committee as the parish council representative.
I came up with the idea for SO Sustainable after I’d made an offhand comment to a friend. She runs another fab local business supplying exquisite lighting solutions, Bella Luce. I said “I’d love to have a shop on the High Street, but I have nothing to sell. If only I could sell saving the planet!”
Watlington is a very small town in rural South Oxfordshire. We are very lucky to have a thriving independent high street with lots of lovely shops. However, until recently, none of them had sustainability at their forefront.
I set up SO Sustainable in May 2019 and shortly afterwards, I was involved with the creation of Watlington Climate Action Group which has made huge strides towards making Watlington more sustainable. We recently awarded the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free Champion award to a number of local businesses (including SO Sustainable).
Our geography has helped us succeed. You have to drive at least 10 miles to the nearest supermarket, and people are already very used to Saturday morning shopping at a slower pace on the High Street. They like to visit the butcher, the baker… the candlestick maker… our fabulous local deli etc. Providing a minimal or packaging-free solution for the rest of their shop means that our 3,000 residents have very little cause to leave our wonderful town. This has proved to be very fortuitous under the current circumstances!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Space! We currently only operate out of our house. We stock a huge range of products and in order to ensure we are as plastic-free as possible, we buy in the largest quantities we can. This means our shop (formerly our dining room) is packed full of products as is our spare room. I can’t wait to move into proper retail premises so we can have some space back! Of course, the commute from the sofa to the shop currently has its advantages!
Who is your target market?
I always find this a tough one because, of course, everyone needs food and we want everyone to shop in a more sustainable way. That said, our typical customer is 30 – 50 years old, female, with children, who live within 5-10 miles of Watlington.
The majority of the food we stock is organic, so we appeal predominantly to those who can afford to pay a little more. We do, however, try to keep our prices as affordable as possible. Just so that everyone can access the benefits of wholesome, organic foods. We also advocate the benefits of switching to reusable rather than disposable products. The additional upfront cost is almost always going to save you money in the long run. It is also better for the environment.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
I have tried to do everything as cheaply as possible. Mainly because we have had no external sources of investment and have funded everything ourselves from our savings. My main marketing focus is through social media (Instagram and Facebook ). We also started with a WhatsApp group that quickly grew too large for its intended purpose!
Word of mouth has been a very successful way of generating new, long term customers. We also have adverts in the local town newsletters of the communities we serve. We are happy to offer prizes and donations to local causes and fundraising events, all of which helps to raise our profile. Having an A-board outside is also really helpful as lots of people spot it when they’re driving past and make a point of stopping by the next time they are passing.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We are always happy to chat with our customers, make recommendations for products to try or new ways to use them. The fact that everyone is at a different stage in their journey to zero waste is something we readily appreciate and do not pass any judgement on anyone for needing to use disposable products.
We have tried very hard to create a community around SO Sustainable, where people can advise each other on different things to try and recommend their favourite switches. Our best seller has consistently been the brilliant Kutis natural deodorant. We stock their full range of fragrances and still can’t believe how amazing this product is. One of the best decisions I made early on, was to give away one of these deodorants for free to a well-established local personal trainer. She was so impressed with the product that she recommended it to all her clients. I have had so many purchases from that, so it was well worth the freebie!
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
As it is only me (and occasionally my husband) I don’t think I can really answer this question. We do now have a couple of volunteer drivers who help out with our lockdown deliveries. I wouldn’t say we’re functioning as a team with a coherent culture just yet.
When we do find a retail premises and take on staff to run it, I am hoping we can set ourselves apart by offering a modern, flexible approach to working that places family life at the fore.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
As I mentioned previously, we tried to do as much as possible for free. This was great advice we gleaned from the incredible Pop-up Business School. We used Weebly to build our website (in a day!) using Paypal buttons to facilitate quick, easy online selling.
Currently, we are in the process of building a new store on Wix as we have outgrown the Paypal button system. We use Loyverse, a free POS system, which has been amazing at enabling us to sell a huge range of products by weight. Saved many arithmetic nightmares!
For our accounting, we currently use a spreadsheet. We are shortly switching over to use Quickbooks as our trade volume has increased significantly.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I would encourage anyone thinking of starting a business to look up the Popup Business School and if you can attend one of their free courses, even better! They tell you everything you need to know about starting a business for free and give you the confidence to just do it, make that first sale, or eat the frog as they say!
I really would encourage you to just go for it, it doesn’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have an all singing all dancing management system in place when you start out, just make those calls, promote yourself and make that sale. Everything else will follow. If you spend too much time focusing on every tiny little last detail before you launch you will never get anywhere.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
That I am ultimately responsible for everything, though that can be a good thing too!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
A Community Interest Company with a board of directors from the local community, running a profitable retail premises (or three) in South Oxfordshire, that contributes to local climate action projects through its profits.