Do zero waste shops make money?

Zero waste shops aim to eliminate waste by selling unpackaged, bulk items. Customers bring their own containers to fill up on things like dry goods, produce, body care products, and cleaning supplies. The zero waste movement has grown in recent years as more consumers look to reduce their environmental impact. But an important question remains – can these types of shops be financially viable? In this article, we’ll explore the costs and revenue streams for zero waste stores to find out if they can realistically turn a profit.

What are the costs for a zero waste shop?

Opening and operating any retail business comes with considerable costs. For a zero waste shop, some of the main expenses will include:

Real estate

Like most brick-and-mortar stores, one of the biggest line items is rent or mortgage payments. Prime retail spaces in busy downtowns or trendy neighborhoods command higher rents. Less expensive areas will lower operating costs but may also mean less foot traffic.

Store buildout and renovations

Unless moving into a turnkey space, the store will need cosmetic renovations and custom buildouts. This includes flooring, lighting, decor elements, shelving and fixtures tailored to displaying bulk items. Creating an inviting ambiance is critical for an enjoyable customer experience.


Stocking a wide variety of quality bulk foods and other products can be expensive upfront. The inventory needs to be continually refreshed and replenished as items sell. Shopping locally sourced and organic items often costs more than buying conventional goods.


The right equipment maximizes efficiency and minimizes contamination risks. Must-haves include: commercial scales, scoops, gravity bins, bulk dispensers, grinder for nut butters, commercial blender, and any refrigeration units for perishable items.

Packaging supplies

Even though customers bring their own containers, the store needs supplies like compostable produce bags, paper and foil wrappers, jars and lids for pre-packaged items.


Reliable and knowledgeable staff represent a significant recurring cost. In addition to competitive wages, small businesses need to cover benefits, insurance, sick days and vacation time. Many zero waste shops start small with just a couple employees.

Permits, licenses and insurance

Proper permitting, business licensing and insurance coverage are necessities. For food sales, additional health department permits may be required.


Electricity, gas, water, garbage collection and internet service all contribute to monthly overhead. Utility costs may be higher with refrigeration and certain equipment needs.

Professional services

Lawyers and accountants provide guidance on business structure, contracts, payroll and tax compliance. Marketing professionals can also help with brand building through logo design, websites, ads and social media.

POS system

A point-of-sale (POS) system tracks sales, manages inventory and provides customer analytics. Popular packages tailored to small businesses often charge monthly fees.

Misc supplies and maintenance

Day-to-day costs include things like cleaning products, paper towels, printing, bank fees and routine maintenance. Small shop owners also have to account for unexpected repairs or equipment issues popping up.

What are the potential revenue streams?

We just looked at the major costs involved in running a zero waste shop. Now let’s examine the potential income sources.

Product sales

This is the core element of any retail business. Sales revenue comes from customers purchasing the inventory. Profit margins vary widely across products. Higher volume staples like grains, flours and oils may have lower markup compared to more specialty offerings.

Membership fees

Some shops generate income through membership programs. Perks like discounts, member-only hours and access to refill stations can encourage signups for a monthly or annual fee.

Food service

Many stores boost profits by offering a small cafe selling coffee, smoothies, sandwiches, soups and other prepared foods. This provides customers added convenience while potentially increasing sales.


Education expands the business model beyond just selling merchandise. Classes on topics like plant-based cooking, DIY body products or composting can be monetized through tuition fees and drive more traffic into the store.

Delivery fees

As an additional service, some shops provide home or office delivery for an extra charge. This caters to regular customers who want the convenience of scheduled bulk refill deliveries.

Brand partnerships

Partnering with popular CPG brands allows zero waste stores to sell pre-packaged items that align with their ethos. This increases selection while earning a wholesale profit on these goods.

Gift cards

Gift cards encourage first-time shoppers to visit and purchase. The store gets an upfront payment when the card is sold, while the recipient spends more in-store to redeem it.

What are some creative ways to maximize profits?

Succeeding as a small zero waste business takes creativity and smart strategies. Some examples of how stores boost their bottom line include:

Customer loyalty programs

Rewarding regular shoppers incentivizes repeat business. Discounts, redeemable points and freebies are tied to different spending tiers. Birthday freebies and referral rewards also help.

Bundling items

Bundling products together at a package discount price point encourages larger basket sizes. Shoppers feel like they’re getting a deal while spending more.

Daily deals

Offering a rotating daily deal featured on signage and social media drives sales. It could be 15% off quinoa or buy-one-get-one free on nut butters.

limited-edition products

Bringing in unique small-batch items intrigues customers. Limited availability prompts quicker purchasing decisions.

Pre-packaged essentials

Despite the bulk focus, carrying some packaged staples like beans, pasta and nut butters satisfies convenience-minded shoppers.

Order pickups/delivery

Online ordering with in-store pickup or delivery meets consumer demand for convenience while earning additional revenue.


Renting ad space on shopping bags, receipts or the store’s website generates incremental income. Local businesses may sponsor community events.

Pop-up shops

Setting up a temporary satellite location in a high-traffic area expands reach. It provides flexibility to experiment with new products and pricing.

What are the pros and cons of a subscription service model?

An increasingly popular tactic for zero waste shops is launching a subscription service. Typically, customers pay a flat monthly or annual fee to receive regular bulk refill deliveries on staple items like coffee, grains, olive oil and body care products. Here is a look at potential advantages and drawbacks:


– Provides recurring revenue stream

– Higher customer retention from membership model

– Lower per-unit costs with bulk ordering

– Gain insights on purchasing patterns to tailor offerings

– Direct delivery cuts down on in-store crowds

– Added convenience motivates bigger basket sizes


– Requires complex inventory and delivery coordination

– Reduced ability to cross-sell additional products in-store

– Difficult to quickly modify products or pricing

– Exclusivity could alienate some non-member shoppers

– Potential for order errors and shipping delays

– Can undermine in-store foot traffic and sales

Case Studies

Looking at real-world examples provides the best insights into the financial viability of zero waste stores. Here are case studies of two successful shops and their keys to profitability:

Case Study 1 – Precycle, Los Angeles

Precycle founder Lauren Singer opened her first zero waste shop in 2017. Located in Brooklyn, it quickly gained popularity for its stylish branding. Singer expanded to L.A. in 2019, opening a chic 1,700 sq. foot store in the artsy Highland Park neighborhood. Despite steep rent and operating costs, Precycle bagged $250,000 in revenue its first year. Gross margins on bulk items can hit 65%. Here are some of Precycle’s winning strategies:

– Added grocery including fresh produce for one-stop-shopping

– Effective SEO and social media for branding and promotions

– Partnered with reputable eco companies like Package Free Shop

– Launched $25/month refill membership program

– Fun, gift-worthy pre-packaged items like metal straw kits

– Engaging workshop series on lifestyle topics

Case Study 2 –, Vancouver

Fillgood opened its original location in 2017 as the first zero waste shop in Vancouver. The fresh, contemporary space appeals to eco-conscious millennials. Fillgood keeps overhead low by using reclaimed materials for shelving and fixtures. Store expansion has been strategic and gradual. Despite being in more affordable neighborhoods, Fillgood enjoys sales over $850,000 annually. Their success stems from:

– Close relationships with local suppliers for competitive pricing

– Grassroots marketing and partnerships with community groups

– Stocking unique handmade items from nearby artisans

– Offering 1-2 day pop-up shops at events and farmers markets

– Low-cost services like yard waste drop-off and knife sharpening

– Hosting free monthly Repair Cafes to fix household items


Opening any small business is a risk with razor thin margins. However, the case studies and revenue opportunities highlighted here illustrate that zero waste shops absolutely can become sustainably profitable. The keys are controlling costs upfront, continuously testing creative initiatives to drive sales, and building a loyal community of repeat customers. An eco-conscious public wants to support purpose-driven brands. But these stores have to carefully manage their finances and inventory while creating a unique shopping experience.

Cost Category Potential Expenses
Real Estate Rent/mortgage, property taxes, maintenance
Store Buildout Construction, flooring, lighting, decor
Inventory Foods, body care, cleaning supplies
Equipment Scales, bins, dispensers, blenders, refrigeration
Packaging Compostable bags, jars, lids, wrappers
Staffing Wages, benefits, insurance, training
Permits & Licenses Business licenses, food handler cards, health permits
Professional Services Lawyer, accountant, marketing, POS system
Utilities Electricity, water, garbage, gas, internet
Misc Supplies Cleaning products, paper goods, printing, repairs

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