We asked Erica Lujan, Manager of Blue Market AK about the store and collaborations going forward with suppliers. "Think Earth First" was her overarching request.
Blue Market AK, is a zero-waste grocer who is changing up the options for consumers to be fully engaged as solvers in reducing waste through their shopping experience. At the same time, the store offers suppliers an opportunity to be innovative in offering items in bulk or reduced/recycle packaging alternatives. The impact? Blue Market AK calculates and regularly reports on their website of the reduced waste into landfills. Other impacts? Less toxicity for consumers and the waste stream that follows from packaging, far too frequently associated with triggers to chronic disease. Additionally, this zero-waste market changes the culture of consumers and suppliers to recognize the benefits of better connecting to the local community.
CI: Please introduce yourself and Blue Market Alaska.
Blue Market AK is what we call an old-world grocery store or sometimes referred to as a slow grocery store. Our footprint is 1000 square feet, located in Anchorage about mid-point between the airport and downtown. Customers would describe their experience as part sourcing of local and healthy products and part a learning experience about the who, how, when and why of the products being offered. It is not the experience of a legacy store with a quick in/out. Blue Market customers are mindful of their purchase and it's economic, health and environmental impact. They are proud of their role in keeping wealth local.
I have a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology and a Masters in Cultural Anthropology with a
decade in public health as a researcher conducting subsistence harvest surveys for fish and game and studying climate adaptation of small communities throughout Alaska. All conversations came back to the spiritual, physical and cultural health through food.
CI: What would you highlight as most unique about Blue Market AK?
Erica Lujan: We have an unfiltered, close relationship with our suppliers and are able to answer very specific questions about the suppliers. If we don't have the answer, we pick up the phone and call them - right then and there. We earn trust rapidly with our customers because we can answer questions about ingredients and processes that support the transparency the customers are seeking. The trust created is a fundamental component of human health and leads to recovery from big food.
We see health and food as the whole planet (ecology) including its people. Our goal as a grocery store is to provide as many items in bulk as possible reducing landfill waste - specifically plastic which will not break down in our lifetime. We have a series of self-serve containers that have everything we possibly can think of flour, sugar, beans, rice, haircare products, soap, dishwashing and laundry soap. We ask our customers to bring in their own containers to refill that we get the tare weight prior to filling so that they pay for only the contents that they filled today. In essence, they are paying only for the product they will be using without paying for the packaging and related marketing materials. Our goal is to keep the plastic or glass containers in use as much as possible / lifecycle. Glass has a much longer life-cycle and our preference.
CI: What are some of your product lines?
Erica Lujan: Our goal is to be a full-service grocery store and currently carries household and personal care items and as many whole foods as possible. Our complete list of vendors can be located on our website. We are actively trying to displace the $2 billion US dollars of food imported each year to Alaska and thus the local first preference. It is not easy to locate and source locally or even regionally what would be the skus of a legacy store, but we're making progress with eggs, milk, yogurt, meats, seafood, produce, grains and locally value-added foods. Historically, Alaska has a rich history of growing and harvesting its own food, but it has more recently fallen prey to supply chain systems and abundant cheap foods mostly from the lower 48 states. Unfortunately, that results in nutrient deficient and highly processed and packaged products. It also relies on consistent and reliable supply chains that we've long recognized leave much of Alaska as a food desert at intervals of interruption.
A zero-waste grocer's mission is to reduce packaging waste in the overall supply chain, concentrating their focus on the shopping experience. They generally ask customers to supply their own containers and bags and rely heavily on their suppliers to reduce and/or eliminate packaging wherever possible. To find one in your community check out this website.
CI: You measure the impacts of your reduction of waste. Tell us about how that works.
Erica Lujan: It is quite extraordinary what we can save as individuals and a community that are kept out of a landfill. It makes a powerful statement. At the end of each year, Blue Market AK estimates by total sales of the previous year product categories. We then average what's normal for packaging versus our zero-waste and calculate and report on the savings to our customers and vendors in an annual report. For example, in 2022 we estimate we saved 565 coffee and nearly 6,000 spice containers from the landfill. Our total of nearly 25,000 containers not purchased or entering a landfill for 2022 is one of our key measurements of our success. That was achieved with mutual cooperation between our customers and vendors.
Our local solid waste service has a new recycling coordinator that offers yet another opportunity for collaboration. They have visited our store with the intent of facilitating more partnerships that further reduce waste in the local landfill. We are actively working with local businesses that may offer ways to reduce and recycle plastics, in particular. One such business is currently taking plastics #1, #2, #5 and #6 and converting them into lumber. When we get items like yogurt containers, we have an option to funnel it for recycling.
CI: You are a buyer. What are you looking to source and how can suppliers make your job easier?
I would ask suppliers to think of earth first. What I mean is that Blue Market AK was
conceived and established by Jennifer Gordon and Jessica Johnson due of their overwhelming desire to reduce waste that was destroying our environment. This is how we approach every aspect of our business, each and every day. We think earth first and how we can improve and influence our supply chain. This is why our scorecard for introducing new products has baseline standards.
As an example. We would like to buy locally made beverages, but don't like ringed plastic surrounding the cans. Why do we have machinery that packages in these ways? Our default should not be the cheapest option if it is not part of our healthy environmental cycle. Think of producing product in the most environmentally friendly terms, because ultimately environmentally friendly products go directly to our health and happiness.
We are always looking for products that have zero packaging and can be offered in bulk. Minimally packaged in shipment. No bubble wrap. No packing peanuts, etc. Floating in a cardboard box is ideal, as that affords us an opportunity to compost it or give them to a local gardening group for permaculture applications to grow food. As for personal care products, we are looking for bath and body products not tested on animals, preferably vegan and biodegradeable. Generally, we favor products that meet certain humanitarian criteria including organic and fair trade. Our goal is to do expand our suppliers list with as many small and woman-owned businesses.
CI: How would you like to collaborate?
Erica Lujan: We're always interested in ways to collaborate with other businesses and organizations to support more mindful shopping. We know we can all do better. We know consumers drive markets and their awareness and knowledge of their impacts in purchasing are significant. I, myself, ask a lot of questions when I'm shopping. Do I need to buy products out of season? Do I know the labor and transport of a product? How long will this packaging remain in the environment?
As for the business community, I would like to see more emphasis on cooperation over competition. That might look like more brainstorming sessions together or more solving together on transportation, processing and ordering. There are some collaborative interests of small stores around the state and we are excited to explore the opportunities.
More information? Contact Erica and Blue Market here.