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How a passion to be plastic-free led to a first business venture

In February 2020 Elly Obeney opened Contain Yourself, her rather brilliantly named refill store in Southborough, Kent. 

In common with many zero waste and refill store owners, Obeney is an unlikely entrepreneur. She’d never had dreams of running her own business, but instead fell into the role as the result of a deep personal passion. 

The idea and motivation to start Contain Yourself sprang from a desire to reduce plastic in her own life, and to follow a more sustainable lifestyle. Keen to reuse her own bottles and containers, she quickly discovered that the options available to do this locally were very limited. Convinced she wasn’t the only person in west Kent who could make use of a refill service, she decided to give it a go herself. 

In 2018 Obeney tested the water by taking part in local farmers markets and pop-ups around Kent. As well as enabling her to trial her idea, this approach also helped her establish herself financially (“I simply didn’t have the funds to open a store straight away”).  But she soon calculated that opening a bricks and mortar shop would be the way to build a business with more long-term viability. So she she took plunge and opened her Southborough store. 

Contain Yourself is a smallish store on the local high street. Rent is a lower than in neighbouring Tunbridge Wells, but it’s a lively town with plenty of development underway. 

Obeney’s initial offer was built around ‘eco friendly refills’ of cleaning and laundry products, toiletries and personal care lines. 

But just one month after Contain Yourself opened came the first lockdown. It meant that Obeney (whose store then didn’t qualify as ‘essential’ retail) was forced to close almost as soon as she’d opened. To keep the business going she immediately launched a delivery service (something she is now considering as a more permanent feature). Later in the year she added dried food products to her refill mix, which meant that she was able to open during the second lockdown and subsequent tier requirements. 

Obeney has her own distinctive take on zero waste, a term which she thinks has an unhelpful ‘all or nothing’ connotation. She says: “I personally feel that for most people it is nearly impossible to be 100% zero waste. There are so many limitations which vary person to person and so much information out there that it can feel really overwhelming knowing where to start. I cannot pretend to say that I live a zero waste lifestyle, I have a long way to go but I am also so much further along my journey compared to two years ago which is the main thing!”. As well as encouraging people to feel that they can make “small steps” towards living more sustainably, Contain Yourself sets out to make packaging-free shopping affordable and accessible.

As well as encouraging people to feel that they can make “small steps” towards living more sustainably, Contain Yourself sets out to make packaging-free shopping affordable and accessible.

Obeney says she learnt a lot during her first year of trading. “There have been lots of ups and downs along the way, from figuring out what markets are popular for me, to constantly researching different suppliers to find those that offer the best products through a circular system”. She’s also added some additional ‘eco alternatives’ – such as soap bars, dental products and wax wraps – to give the business some higher margin products and strengthen finances. 

One of the challenges facing zero waste retailing is a perception that prices will be higher, gram for gram. “It’s a hurdle we need to get over as a sector. When people come into Contain Yourself, they discover that our prices are often the same, or cheaper, than the supermarkets”. 

Despite the undoubted challenges the Covid pandemic has created, Obeney is optimistic about the future for the refill store and its role in helping people to live more sustainably. “I’ve seen a huge increase in awareness since I started back in 2018. And I love speaking to, educating and being educated by the people I meet at the shop and at markets. It’s great to play a role in helping them on their zero waste journey”.

Images: Contain Yourself/Elly Obeney

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