INTERVIEW: Tamsin Thornburrow, The Face Of Hong Kong’s Zero Waste Movement “Live Zero Started As A Passion Project”
Hong Konger Tamsin Soolin Thornburrow opened the city’s first zero-waste bulk grocery store Live Zero in 2018, offering avid green-minded consumers a fully-fledged solution to the city’s shocking waste-crisis: a place to buy everyday groceries and household goods without plastic and without packaging. Ever since, life has been non-stop for the eco-warrior from opening up a zero-waste beauty section to stocking up even more bulk food products and educating the community on conscious living. We recently sat down for a chat with the uber-busy entrepreneur to speak about low-impact living, the challenges of running a planet-friendly business and the possibility of a waste-free Hong Kong.
GQ: What was the inspiration behind starting Hong Kong’s first zero-waste store, Live Zero?
TST: I think it was a personal thing, call it a passion project. I couldn’t find a store that offered items in bulk or in less packaging. It also came naturally from my first business selling homewares, which was all about supporting small communities’ handicrafts and goods – and the packaging that I would get as a retailer. Before this whole thing, I never knew the term “zero-waste” existed. As a pretty product-based person, I started to find lots of new and exciting things like [reusable] bottles, metal straws, metal lunch boxes. And then slowly, it was like I just couldn’t stop from there, and I opened a temporary pop-up in PMQ in 2017. It was to test the market, and then somehow, the bulk food concept came out of it. We got a lot of tourists visiting our pop-up store, but our goal was to grow a community. This is why we wanted to set up a permanent store location, and provided the staple foods first for daily needs.
GQ: What are some of the main challenges to overcome in amongst Hong Kong consumers with a packaging-free concept such as yours?
TST: Changing people’s mindset and making this change sustainable to them. In an ideal world, we would just change tomorrow at the snap of a finger. But these things take time, and we have to understand that it will be a slow process to get people thinking about why this is the right way to go. So that’s why with our business, it is educationally focused. When we first opened, it was pretty mouth-drying and repeating to people why we were doing what we were doing!
So really, the challenge is to re-educate people to do things that aren’t necessarily natural to them. We are used to the supermarket way of shopping, and we don’t normally think about needing to bring bags and containers out to go to a store or asking yourself how much of a product you really need. And our shopping experience is much simpler than supermarkets. Take our brown rice, for example, where there is only one brand compared to the number of brands available at supermarkets.
GQ: And what about suppliers? You try really hard to have a totally plastic-free supply chain and work only with those brands that transport goods without plastic. Can you tell us a bit more about that and how willing brands are to adapt?
TST: I think it was the most difficult in the beginning when it comes to suppliers because no one understood what we were doing! Many companies would just repeatedly ask us how many quantities of a certain packaged amount we wanted, but that wasn’t what we wanted – we wanted one bulk order! So that is why we had to import a lot of things by ourselves, and we still do because there are few bulk importers in Hong Kong and even fewer who import organic items, which is what we focus on.
It’s hard because everything still needs to come in some form of packaging, but it’s about finding alternatives. For example, we import Herbaland vegan multivitamin candies from Canada, and while it took more time to organise, they were willing to send things to us in compostable bags. We also work with local companies, such as Bathe To Basics, who were willing to come and collect old liquid soap containers that can be refilled and reused. And I love ice cream, so I had to try really hard to find a company that would agree to using glass jars. I had emailed all the local brands and only Happy Cow was interested – we have to clean the jars and it adds to the cost. It isn’t that profitable, but it is worth it for the planet. I do have to push companies, and slowly, they’ve become more willing because they know the volume we are ordering in.
GQ: Do you believe that minds are changing in Hong Kong about bulk foods and packaging-free beauty products? What motivates people here to adopt this approach to shopping?
TST: Yes, definitely. I think what drives this is because people are more aware and conscious in recent years. We’re seeing more community gatherings, sustainability talks and companies trying to appear greener. In a way, it is becoming fashionable to be environmentally friendly. While this might seem to be a superficial thing, it still pushes people in the right direction. I believe that things change if it can become “cool”, and now being green is cooler than it was before. It’s also notable that it isn’t just Westerners or expats who are interested in this lifestyle, it is the local community, which is exactly what we are trying to tap into.
GQ: Can Hong Kong ever transition and operate through a zero-waste supply chain?
TST: I’m hopeful but it won’t be coming as quickly as other countries because Hong Kongers are profit driven. It’s about money and appearance here, and many families want labels and status. In addition to that, many stores are owned under one big company. And if things are working fine for these companies – as in, people don’t start voting with their wallets – then they won’t want to change the way they currently operate. On the other side of it, everyday people don’t realise that they have the power as a community to use their wallet where it matters. If we can collectively stop supporting the companies that contribute to waste, and start writing to these companies to persuade them for change, we can really make a push.
GQ: How can we encourage more people to change the way they consume, and to live more consciously?
TST: So for myself, one of the reasons why I began this journey was because I am very thrifty myself and I like saving wherever I can. Saving money comes into zero-waste and being eco. You’re buying the product, not the packaging, and you can buy only as much is needed. In our store, we promote this by letting people purchase without being dictated by any minimum amount. When you show people the savings you can have with conscious living, you can really encourage more people to try this out. It takes more planning and time, but you can see the result. But this isn’t the only thing, it could also be about saving space and also being motivated by doing things that won’t harm our planet.
GQ: As a female leader, what do you have to say to young girls and women who look up to you as a role model?
TST: Start something not because you want to make money, but find a drive and passion. You won’t be able to work hard on something if it isn’t something you love. For me, a lot of projects fail because people expect quick results, but you need to keep pushing over time. So I’d say to them to find your passion and love, and then figure out how to make that realisable.
GQ: What is something you wish you had known 10 years ago?
TST: I was always a planner. I pictured myself going to university, finishing my architecture degree, working a certain amount, and so on. But now I know that it is sometimes better to go with your gut. I’m not saying this is always the “right” way to go! But it is how I ended up with Live Zero. I don’t plan and I go with my gut feeling.
GQ: Team rice or team noodles?
TST: Rice! I love rice – I’m known as a fan tao (rice head)!
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.