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Green grocery store gains dedicated customer base

By Li Menghan | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-16 08:57
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A customer browses jars containing green groceries at Chongmingdao shop in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, last month. CHINA DAILY

At a quaint, independent grocery store in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, the beans are stored in large transparent acrylic jars with release valves at the bottom. Vegetables are placed in bamboo baskets free from plastic packaging, and seasonings like cooking wine and soy sauce are kept in half-meter-tall ceramic jars.

This community shop, located in Xihu district, is an attempt by Qiu Li, an ecology teacher from Zhejiang University of Finance & Economics, to instill greater environmental awareness in the local community.

She opened her shop three years ago, naming it Chongmingdao, which means an island resonant with the sounds of bugs.

"While bugs are categorized into beneficial and harmful insects, they exhibit the highest diversity of types, each holding inherent value and significance within nature," she said.

Years of engagement in environmental protection has taught Qiu, 47, that "while everyone knows the importance of environmental protection, ingraining the concept of sustainability into their daily behaviors remains a significant challenge".

Qiu said even though most public facilities such as supermarkets and shopping malls have implemented a ban on providing free plastic bags, the low cost and easy availability of them have hindered the ban from having a greater impact on a larger number of people.

Her original motivation in opening her shop was to address issues of over-packaging and single-use plastics.

She said prolonged exposure to eco-friendly principles and associated practices can be instrumental in shaping people's consciousness.

Qiu's environmental awakening began when she was at university, after she took part in volunteer activities involving Yangtze River conservation, the preservation of the Hainan gibbon and Tibetan antelope protection. As a result, she switched her major from chemistry to ecology.

When the shop first opened, sales were extremely low. "The items were priced higher because of the absence of pesticides and ripening agents," Qiu said.

The unfamiliar shopping approach also caused many queries.

"Many customers came to the shop, pointed to a jar of whatever and asked if there were smaller packages available," she said, adding that she told each of them patiently that they could use their own bottles or borrow clean but used bottles from the shop and take as much or as little as they want. With the growing presence of the store and its monthly environmental events, an increasing number of residents in the district began adopting a more sustainable approach to their shopping.

"Although this is a business venture, I prefer to see it as a platform for social responsibility," Qiu said. "The total monthly revenue now totals around 30,000 yuan ($4,150), merely breaking even."

She added that about four-fifths of sales come from in-person channels, highlighting a more robust promotion of environmental consciousness in offline activities. This is the reason why she has maintained her brick-and-mortar operations despite the significantly higher costs involved.

She is proud to have gradually cultivated a dedicated customer base of her own.

One converted customer is a retired woman from a mining area in Shanxi province who, due to respiratory and lung health concerns, regularly consumed health supplements. Upon Qiu's guidance, the woman reduced her intake of supplements and transitioned to organic products.

After six months, her medical tests revealed significant improvements in all conditions, especially cirrhosis. The woman is now a regular at Qiu's shop.

In addition, some individuals bring cardboard boxes to the shop for centralized recycling or temporary use by customers who forget to bring their own bags. There are also people who upcycle old sweatshirts into fashionable bags to take the items they buy.

"It takes time to change people's thoughts. No matter how little the efforts are, they are meaningful," she said.

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