inn: Building an online zero waste grocery store header image

“There can be an exclusivity about environmentalism,” says Luke Bolton, co-founder of online zero waste grocery store ‘inn’. “But we think that helping more people do a little bit is far more effective than asking people to completely change their lifestyles.”

inn sells groceries and cleaning products through its website and everything is delivered in reusable packaging by bicycle. They are based in South London. “Our purpose and mission is to be accessible, super convenient, and in some ways most importantly, as affordable as possible. Zero waste shopping has sometimes in the past been more expensive than supermarket shopping. That was a natural barrier to inclusion.”

Luke and his co-founder Nick only launched the business in August last year but have already received positive feedback from customers on the price of products and simplicity of their evening deliveries. Online grocery store inn is one of the many start-ups Starling has welcomed as business customers since the pandemic began.

If not now, when?

The name inn is partly an acronym for the well-known phrase ‘If not now, when?’ “The environment has always been close to my heart,” says Luke, 26, who grew up in South Africa. “I remember my dad sending me a picture of the small island Bazaruto off the coast of Mozambique. There are only three houses on the island. But they picked up 80 toothbrushes on a beach that’s only 200m long. They all came from the ocean. It’s these stories that niggle at you.”

Luke Bolton and Nick Lawson, co-founders of inn
Luke Bolton and Nick Lawson, co-founders of inn

“Mid-lockdown, one of my housemates set off for our local zero waste shop, which is about a 15 minute walk away. She had to get all of her containers together, book her monthly slot, bulk shop and walk back with a bag that ended up weighing over 10kg. It seemed so cumbersome and difficult,” says Luke. 

“I thought there had to be a better way. But when I looked around, I couldn’t find a convenient and affordable way to do it,” he says. “Hearing stories about the environment, combined with seeing my housemate try so hard to do something good, I thought that this business might be something where I could make a difference.” Luke started the business and was joined by Nick a few weeks in.

At the moment, the team is focused on supporting customers in South London, with plans to expand north of the river and into more British cities this year. “With each delivery, we include a hand-written note to give it a more personal feel. Whilst we’re an online store, we want our customers to feel part of the inn community - a group of people who all want to make a difference - and so for us having those human connections is really important.”

Responsible banking

A digital and responsible bank like Starling was a natural choice for a business like inn. “I already used Starling for my personal banking and didn’t want to go anywhere else for our business banking,” Luke says. 

“I’ve tried all the challenger banks - I love seeing how they work, friends come to me to ask which bank they should use because it’s a thing they know me for. Starling is far better than any of the rivals and that’s down to simplicity of design and ease of use.”

One of his favourite features is the Starling Marketplace, where customers can browse and connect to third-party products related to everything from insurance to accounting. “I love when something new comes into the Starling Marketplace. I like having those options - if we want to use QuickBooks or Xero, it’s all in there,” he says. 

“Another thing I like is the web access. As a business, I love being able to pay for things on the go. But when I sit down to do admin, I feel like I’m more on top of everything when I’m at a desktop.”

Promoting a circular economy

The team’s emphasis on reusing, aligns it with the circular economy, a term that refers to a regenerative model where waste is minimised and resources are used sustainably.

“Our model is a circular one, with all our packaging reusable by design. But we’re also a ‘progress not perfection’ model - we’re learning a lot as we go. We try to think carefully about the environmental impact of every area of our operation. As much as possible, we avoid the take, make, waste, linear model. Where we can, we reuse. For example, for the handwritten notes, we use the cardboard packaging from our suppliers. And when reusing isn’t possible, we recycle,” he says.

“As you would from any online grocery store, you order and pay for your groceries or cleaning products. We pack it all up in reusable cotton bags and plastic spout pouches and wrap it in an upcycled hessian coffee sack, which we get from our local roastery Volcano Coffee Works. Once we’ve made the delivery, the customer puts the products in their own jars or bottles and then we pick up our packaging when we deliver their next order.” 

First orders also come with a prepaid mailbag to use to send back packaging if you don’t want to re-order. And you can make suggestions for products you’d like to see available through the website.

inn groceries and domestic products in reusable packaging
inn groceries and domestic products in reusable packaging

Some customers may be surprised to learn that they use plastic as containers for cleaning products. Luke says: “Plastic is still a useful material. Our aim is to use and reuse our plastic containers and pouches for their whole lifecycle. We take responsibility to make sure that they’re recycled - that’s on us, not the customer.” 

At every turn, the team weighs out their options and chooses whichever form of packaging they feel balances environmental impact, convenience and affordability. 

The same goes for the products sold on their website. “All of the products we sell have done the least miles possible from their source, and have come from fairtrade, organic or sustainable wholesalers.”

Subscribeto blog updatesarrow-rightGrow your businessHelpful free business guidesarrow-right

Related stories

Latest posts

Help