Inside America's Most Sustainable Supermarket
Launched in August 2012 by brothers Christian and Joseph Lane, in.gredients is a small grocer at the forefront of food retail sustainability (next door, the brothers also run Praecipio Consulting, an IT firm that helps businesses become more sustainable). Since opening, in.gredients has not sent one crumb of food to the landfill. Perhaps even more impressively, the store creates less than a pound of unrecyclable trash per month. Housed in a retrofitted, energy- and water-efficient former day-care center, in.gredients emphasizes local, package-free, unprocessed and—of course—tasty foods.
The Beauty of Buying Bulk
The secret to being a mostly package-free store is to sell as much food as possible in bulk, such as the dry goods in these bins. Bins not only cut down on packaging, but also prevent food waste by allowing shoppers to buy only as much as they need.
Rethinking Cleaning Supplies
That bulk retail format doesn’t apply just to food: Cleaning products and various cooking oils are sold by weight, too.
One of in.gredients’ main waste reduction strategies is getting shoppers to bring their own containers (also known as “precycling”). Before filling their containers, shoppers weigh them to avoid paying for those Tupperware ounces.
A Sustainable Nudge
More than half of in.gredients’ shoppers bring their own containers and reusable bags, but co-founder Christian Lane knows that sometimes they forget. “It happens,” Lane says. “We don’t want to be so hard core that we lose sales.” Their solution: in.gredients offers paper and plastic bags, but steers shoppers toward paper by charging for plastic.
Though the Lanes would love to avoid all packaging, the state of Texas thinks otherwise. The Texas Department of State Health Services requires that certain foods at risk of cross-contamination—meat, seafood and dairy—be sold in some form of wrapping. Even with that concession, 69 percent of the store’s goods are sold package-free.
As evidenced by the empty sweet potato bin (bottom of photo), in.gredients would rather run out of something than have constant waste in the name of never selling out. “People who understand what we’re trying to do, they like it,” Lane says. “Some folks—you’ll see the reviews on Yelp—they don’t like it.” Meanwhile, the boxes used to display the produce are old wine crates.
A full 97 percent of the store’s produce is local, with labels spelling out each item’s origin. Their definition of “local” always means Lone Star State provenance, but the exact proximity varies depending on the food item. “It’s five miles for tomatoes, but for oranges it’s south Texas,” Lane says.
Much of in.gredients’ produce doesn’t look pretty, a by-product of buying locally from small growers who are more concerned with taste than appearance. By familiarizing shoppers with this “farmers’ market” approach, the store can avoid having to cull perfectly good produce for superficial reasons like irregular shape, size or color.
Using unsold produce in prepared foods is the largest part of in.gredients’ food waste reduction strategy. That’s significant, as fresh foods can make up more than half of a supermarket’s regular waste stream. As knowledgeable (and frugal) cooks know, stews, bread puddings and other rustic dishes can actually taste better when made with “vintage” produce and bread. Additionally, some edible but unsellable food is donated to those in need through a local community development group.
It doesn’t get more local than right out front! Some of the produce sold at in.gredients comes from the on-site garden, which has raised beds made from repurposed wooden pallets. The rest goes home with the area residents who help tend the garden, which is overseen by Urban Patchwork, a nonprofit urban agriculture network.
Recycling and Composting
Though strategies for reducing and reusing take priority (in.gredients even encourages vendors to take back and reuse bulk packaging), they also recycle what little excess materials they do have. That means recycling cardboard and composting food scraps (sent out in blue bins to Break It Down, a local composting organization).