More than a store

Replenish in Kalamunda has a homely quality. People walk into the store with warm familiarity — as if it is the home of a friend or family member.  As they carry containers in and leave with the same containers, it doesn’t look like they have been grocery shopping.  Instead, they seem to have casually popped over for a quick visit.

This is the atmosphere store owner Rachel Davison had hoped for when she opened Replenish six years ago.

Rachel Davison opened Replenish in 2017 to provide people with a way to shop waste-free. Photo: Premila Ratnam.

Replenish is a zero-waste and plastic-free store. None of the goods it sells come packaged in plastic or disposable containers. Instead, customers bring their own containers and fill them with the foods they need. 

Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute associate professor Atiq Zaman says businesses like Davison’s are essential if governments and individuals want to reduce plastic consumption and waste generation. The latest data shows Australia generated 75.8 million tonnes of waste between 2020 and 2021. Of that, 32.8 million tonnes came from the commercial and industry sector — including supermarkets, restaurants, and other food outlets. 

All levels of government are working together to reduce waste, implementing ambitious targets, and recycling rates are increasing. However, despite these efforts, more waste is being produced each year as a growing population leads to an increase in overall consumption. “The system actually forces us to create waste,” says Dr Zaman. Even well-meaning consumers are limited by the choices available to them. He points to the fact that most supermarkets only offer food and other products wrapped in plastic.

That’s why there is interest in stores like Replenish. Davison’s was born from a personal attempt to reduce single-use plastic consumption.

In mid-2016, Davison and her family — her husband and two children — signed up to the Plastic Free July challenge. A lifelong lover of nature with a background in environmental science, Davison was close to finishing a degree in sustainability at Murdoch University at the time; her studies inspiring her to make more sustainable living choices. The challenge piqued her awareness of just how much plastic was a part of their lives.

Davison thought she and her family already had a relatively light environmental footprint. But when they cut all plastic out as part of the month-long challenge, including buying groceries wrapped in plastic, she noticed how much lighter their rubbish bin was. As the family turned to unpackaged food bought from a bulk-food shop, she also noticed a reduction in their food waste.

“There’s a lot of things that once you know them you can’t unknow them,” Davison says. And what started as a month-long family challenge to reduce plastic quickly turned into a grand ambition. 

Davison opened Replenish in 2017, hoping to use what she had learned to help others reduce plastic consumption and lower waste generation. However, she didn’t just want the store to function as an ordinary shop. She also imagined it would serve as a “connector and supportive hub” for people who are worried about the environment and their future.

“For me, it wasn’t ever going to be just a retail outlet to sell food. It was always going to be a place where people feel supported, share ideas.”

Rachel Davison

That sense of community is seen both in the space that Davison has created and in the support her customers give back. 

Davison fosters a community atmosphere at her store.
Photo: Premila Ratnam.

Davison says she’s been lucky to have customers who have been with her since Replenish first opened. Her loyal customers stayed through the COVID-19 pandemic.  The resulting restrictions on businesses made operating a plastic-free store harder to navigate, but most of her customers were willing to adapt and shop in a way that was safe for everyone.

However, even with its core customer base, Replenish isn’t immune to other forces. Davison says the current cost-of-living crisis has been tougher on her business than the COVID-19 restrictions were — particularly when it comes to keeping new customers. She’s understanding. “It’s kind of counterintuitive because you think ‘people still need to eat’. But I think when people are feeling frightened and they’re under immense financial pressure, they tend to revert back to what they know,” she says empathetically.

COVID-19 and a cost-of-living crisis is a lot for one business to contend with in only six years of operation.  And Davison is navigating it all as a first-time business owner. After completing her studies, she wasted no time in opening Replenish. “There have been lots of times when I’ve wondered about the wisdom of that decision,” she laughs. But Davison says after a steep learning curve in the first few years, Replenish now runs like a well-oiled machine.

With operations running smoothly, she can turn her focus to the other parts of the business she really wants to nurture — like running workshops on sustainable and zero-waste living for her customers and the local community.

Davison says she’s always wanted to “make a difference” and is determined to be part of the solution when it comes to Australia’s waste problem. 

According to Dr Zaman, solving the waste problem should not be hard.  “Why are we able to go to the moon, but unable to solve the packaging problem?” he says with a wry laugh. The issue is one of complexity — the solution requires multiple stakeholders to work together.

While Dr Zaman stresses the need for strong government intervention and regulation, he says stores like Replenish play an important role in reducing waste. Zero-waste and plastic-free stores allow consumers to forge sustainable habits; habit formation being crucial to drive change at the individual level. He also says a “genuine intention” to make a difference, at all levels, is key.

Genuine intentions are the foundation of Replenish’s business model. Davison wears her intentions on her sleeve. She has put a lot of time and energy into making her business-slash-community-hub work. But carrying the weight of those good intentions can be overwhelming at times.

“It does become a bit all-consuming,” Davison says about running a business that is centred around driving positive change.

“It’s easy to get carried away and think that what you’re doing isn’t enough.”

Rachel Davison

Over time, she has learned she can’t let those thoughts consume her. Instead, she looks at how far her business has come and tracks its impact to-date. It helps her to envision what impact the store might continue to have.

Davison hopes her store will have a continuing impact. Photo: Premila Ratnam.

Davison talks about one of her customers, who comes to the store every week with her four-year-old daughter. The daughter sees her mother use refillable containers to buy their everyday groceries. Davison knows that she will likely continue the habit of zero-waste shopping when she’s older. In that way, Davison knows Replenish is making a difference, both now and into the future.

“That’s pretty cool,” she says with a smile.