As part of a project called Change Makers I am interviewing people and organisations who are doing things a little differently and are creating positive change in the world. The aim of this is to show that there are alternatives to using unethical corporations, connect people looking to be the change to companies that can help them achieve that goal and maybe even encourage you to start something of your own.

Change Makers - The Soap Dispensary
Change Makers – The Soap Dispensary

The Soap Dispensary is an essential shop for anyone trying to reduce their waste in Vancouver. The mission for the store is “to keep single-use plastics out of landfills, watersheds and energy-intensive recycling systems”. It does this by selling a wide range of items in bulk so that you can bring refillable containers and cut out any plastic waste completely. Everything from laundry detergent, to soaps, to honeys and oils and even toothpaste can be brought from the store. I was able to reduce my plastic usage considerably after discovering this great place.

I had an inspiring discussion with the founder, Linh Truong, to find out more.

Tell me about The Soap Dispensary what is it all about?

The Soap Dispensary is dedicated to helping our community reduce plastic waste. We do that by:

  1. Offering our products in a refillable format so customers can reuse their own containers. We have approximately 100 items that we refill in the shop from soaps, to beauty products, to edible liquids, to raw ingredients to make your own products.
  2. We also offer alternative packaging such as glass bottles and beautiful containers that inspire you to use them over and over. We carry a lot of lifestyle products that are alternatives to those made with plastic such as toothbrushes made from bamboo and Swedish Dishcloths that replace at least 18 rolls of paper towels and can be composted afterwards.

Everything we bring into the store has a purpose of helping our customers live with a lighter footprint and less waste.

The Soap Dispensary on Main Street Vancouver
The Soap Dispensary on Main Street, Vancouver

What was the inspiration behind you starting The Soap Dispensary? 

We used to live in Victoria and were customers at another refill store, that has been running for over 20 years, The Soap Exchange. We loved that we didn’t have to throw away or recycle plastic bottles and were able to reduce our waste. When we moved to Vancouver we were shocked that there wasn’t a similar option, we thought it would be greener city but in fact it wasn’t.

For a while we would take our refillable containers with us every time we went back to Victoria and stocked up again but that wasn’t realistic or sustainable over a long period. In the end we decided that Vancouver needed a refill store and so we started it ourselves, partly to fulfill our own needs.

What did your partner Stewart (co-owner) do before starting the company?  Were you very experienced in this industry?

First of all, we thought people who had their own businesses were crazy and, I think, we still believe it! No, we had no experience in this industry and had never run a business before this. I have a Fine Arts background and Stewart has a Spanish and Business degree, although he had never used the business side of it. We have had all kinds of work in both non and for profit sectors. I have held lots of service jobs in restaurants and retail and had last worked as a professional cat sitter!

Stewart doesn’t actually run the business with me as he has a separate day job. He helps out on weekends and offers advise and tech support!

Were there any difficulties you faced in starting such a unique business?

It was certainly a risk, but a calculated one. I took a business-planning course through Douglas College and I made sure to do my homework beforehand. I researched neighbourhoods, talked to people, and visited other refill stores in Canada and USA to see different models. Everything I learned was put into our own model.

Difficulties were the same as anyone starting a new business: capital, location, and marketing. None of these were unique to this business. We ended up getting a loan from Vancity which is a wonderful credit union and borrowed from family and friends and away we went.

The uniqueness of the business did worry us a little. Would Vancouver accept this type of business? I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t crazy and that refilling makes a lot of sense. We were concerned about reaching our community and in the end got a lot of help from local environmental activists and groups who took us under their wings to help spread the word. It certainly wasn’t easy when we started but it turned out ok.

Some of the products available in the store
Some of the products available in the store

Why is it important that we take responsibility for our waste and try to reduce it?

It is irresponsible not to. This planet is not our garbage dump. We have to keep it pristine; in the way we found it for future generations. Plastic, in particular, is a relatively new substance having become prevalent only in the last 50 years. It’s a catastrophe. Every single piece of plastic that has ever been made is still on our planet. If we don’t deal with it, it will bury us.

Some plastic has definitely helped us advance in technology but our big concern is single-use and disposable plastic. It fills our landfills, leaches into the ground, washes into the oceans, breaks down into micro-plastics which fish and birds eat. If it doesn’t kill them, it can make it into our food chain and on and on. We are only starting to realise how terrible it is. Why not do something about it? We wouldn’t litter our streets so why as a society do we litter our larger environment, our eco system? It’s important to reduce our consumption of plastic. So much of it is nonessential usage, such as packaging and plastic bags, all for the sake of convenience.

What tips would you offer someone looking to reduce their waste?

Start small and don’t overwhelm yourself. There are a lot of little things you can do which may seem insignificant, but it all adds up. It’s easy to say “I’m just one person, how can I make a difference?” It can feel disheartening. Sometimes you may go to a store and choose not to take a bag yet the customer next to you asks for everything to be double bagged! It can be very challenging. But if you take small steps and get comfortable doing it, you can take on more and more. You can’t change overnight.

Our personal decision to cut down waste started with not using any Styrofoam. It is toxic and completely unnecessary.  We eat meat and so stopped buying meat in Styrofoam trays. This forced us to go to the local butchers, where we were able to get meat wrapped in paper or we could bring our own containers. As a bonus, we were getting better meat from locally raised, grass fed animals, and we were also supporting local businesses. All of these positive social benefits from that one act. It was a little inconvenient but we learned to plan better. Some people start by simply not taking plastic bags. It’s important to do the things that are meaningful to you. You can’t do it all so choose ones that are relevant to your lifestyle.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business that contributes to positive change? 

Go for it! Do lots of research. I spent almost a year researching and planning. It’s good to be prepared for the challenges. There are a lot of people in the community that are looking for alternatives to the commercial humdrum. You will have a good audience for any environmental business in Vancouver. I think people are actually hungry for it. Connect with fellow businesses, non-profits, people and organisations in the community that are relevant to your business and values. That has been invaluable to our business. There is a lot of cross promotion and support out there.

Some of the refillable products inside the store
Some of the refillable products inside the store

What are the next steps for The Soap Dispensary?

We are in the midst of updating our website and logo. We are working with a wonderful designer to create an online shop so people outside of Vancouver can purchase the hard to find refill products. We also have some new workshops coming up. We are just trying to make the store as awesome as possible and meet our customers’ demands.

What is the change you want to see in the world?

Tough question! There are so many changes we would like to see. We are pretty excited with the recent changes in government. As much as small businesses like us can impact our community we can’t do it alone, consumers can’t do it alone, we need policies in place and need the government to be more responsible and to protect us. They need to put policies in place that makes everyone more responsible.

For example, they should do more on forcing companies to disclose ingredients.  We sell soap and try our best to use products that list ingredients so people know what they are buying. Right now, there is no law that companies need to disclose this in cosmetic products.

There are a lot of top down changes that need to happen. We are making a small contribution and can only reach so many people and do so much as a small business. For real change we need all the players to be involved and if certain players don’t want to be involved then the government policies will force them to.

In terms of making the changes on a micro-level. I vote with my dollars, I support the businesses and products that share my values and I believe that is a good rule to live by.

Thank you so much to Linh and the rest of the team at http://thesoapdispensary.com

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