In her decade of work as a marine biologist, Brianne Miller has witnessed first-hand the devastating impact packaging has on the environment. It’s estimated that 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced since 1950, and close to 5.5 billion tons are no longer in use and not recycled.
Much of this waste is associated with food packaging, meaning current systems for growing, transporting, packaging and consuming food are directly contributing to pollution, habitat degradation and climate change.
Providing a Solution
Wanting to address the problem, Miller leapt into action with the founding of Nada in 2013, a company with the lofty goal of inspiring people to change the way they shop for groceries. For Miller, it was the logical step in addressing a problem nobody seemed inclined to fix:
“As a marine biologist, I started to see the impact of plastic pollution on species I was working with and the direct connection between the health of our oceans and the impact of our food choices,” she said. “Climate change is directly linked to how we’re growing, transporting and packaging our food and I wanted to do something about it. There was nobody doing what Nada Grocery does and I felt like it needed to be done. There wasn’t a solution out there to the problems that were bugging me more and more.”
The Learning Process
Moving from scientist to entrepreneur wasn’t an easy transition. For Miller, there’s been a lot learning on the fly and leaning on a broad church of advisors to make Nada a success, and it’s something she’s become comfortable with.
“I definitely didn’t have a business background before I got into this,” she revealed. “Trying to learn how to start a business was a huge learning curve from the get-go. I didn’t have a lot of skills I now do. I had to learn how to do marketing, how to manage a budget and create a network of people to advise us. This is where our advisory board comes in. We have experts in a range of fields and were able to pull them in to help us with things we didn’t know ourselves.”
Finding A Home
For Miller, a permanent location was the next logical step in the company’s journey following the success of their pop-up stores around the Lower Mainland, which appeared for four years at locations, such as Patagonia and various street markets. August 2017 marked a landmark month for Nada, with the signing of the lease for their first ever permanent store location at 675 East Broadway in Vancouver. The building aligns perfectly with Nada’s zero waste philosophy, holding LEED Gold Certification, and easy accessibility for those taking public transit.
“Our pop-up stores enabled us to assess our minimum viable product and to see, on a small scale, if people were interested in shopping this way. Thankfully, they were. We learned a lot in terms of marketing; from talking to customers, seeing what products people are requesting, where those products are coming from, and how they get to us. A lot of those elements have been incorporated into the design of our first store.”
Bucking the Trend
The established grocery supply chain works because it’s cheap and convenient. In eschewing this supply chain, Nada has had to learn to do things differently, posing unique challenges for Miller and her team.
“In terms of packaging, we have been working with Vancouver Coastal Health to figure out what the regulations are, and how we can achieve what we want to achieve. We will only work with suppliers who have agreed to modify their supply chain in some shape or form to help us reach our zero waste goals. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing from the get-go, as it’s especially harder with big companies to implement these big changes. As long as we’re sure they’re making incremental steps toward zero waste, it can be enough.”
She continues: “Honestly, a lot of it is picking up the phone and explaining to people what we’re doing and why we’re doing. In most cases, they get it. We work with about 200 suppliers right now and we choose to work with companies that have a social and environmental message of their own.”
Spreading the Word
The fact nobody else was doing what Nada set out to do meant they had a captive audience to tap into. However, it also meant they had to work hard to raise awareness of who they are and what they do.
“You have to put yourself out there,” Miller said. “Networking was so important to us in the beginning and we made a concerted effort to be at specific events. You have to put yourself and your company in front of as many people as possible early on. We’ve also been able to find a lot of help when and where needed by plugging into our networks.”
Predicting the Future
So, what’s in store for the future for Nada.
“We definitely want to follow our first stores with additional stores in Vancouver. We’re excited to start the first one, and we’re going to use it to work the kinks out of the process and go from there. As for further afield, we’ll see whether we take it out of the province or beyond.”