James Denton is the founder of GoodFor Wholefoods store, a chain of zero waste stores in New Zealand — selling bulk food and everything you might need to embrace a low waste lifestyle. Full disclosure, we have known James for a while, since he opened GoodFor Ponsonby in 2016, near where both Tracey and I are based. And this relationship led us to think of James, and GoodFor store, for our first featured conversation on Lagom.
James Denton is a young entrepreneur. He was 31 years old at the time of writing. He had been managing three GoodFor locations for over a year, and yet this was not his first entrepreneurship experience. This is a conversation between James and us, that given our shared interests in waste and its related themes, our discussion naturally lasted over an hour. The result is an insightful conversation about what it means to drive a purpose-driven business. Here we learn of James early years, how he came to GoodFor store, the challenges he is facing, his advice and broad views on sustainability; and finally how his experience gradually is leading him towards activism.
Tell us a bit about your business experiences before GoodFor store, how did you start in business, and what lessons did you learn?
After my accounting studies, I worked in the field for a little while and then joined a friend to work on the European golf tour, a job we enjoyed a lot for a year. And then at twenty-six years old and at the time, working in kitchens in the luxury yacht industry, I partnered with my older brother to create a website. Similar to Linkedin, this website was tailored for the yacht industry, facilitating contact between workers and boat managers. It took a year for the platform to take off.
This website was our first business, our entry point into entrepreneurship. We didn't seriously think that we would actually enjoy being involved with the yacht industry. Something I learned is that you need to be quite passionate about your business to keep pushing. The yacht industry is terrible — a lot of worker exploitation. And also a lot of extremely wealthy people focused only on themselves, investing ridiculous amounts of money for no good, it’s not even a practical business.
For me, it became somehow strange, and despite the website going well, spending a year working hard, I came to realise it was a waste of time. I didn't want to be part of the yacht industry; I absolutely hated it. So we decided to stop. Unfortunately, we couldn't sell the business as the platform was complicated to maintain and we'd somewhat neglected this aspect of the business. Lesson learned was to never neglect your IT support.
I went travelling again for a bit. I found inspiration, and from there, founded Taco Medic with an old friend in Queenstown, and then GoodFor in Auckland. I had sold my portion of Taco Medic, but as the money came in later, I basically started GoodFor with no capital. I managed to borrow money to pay for the deposit on the lease for the space on Williamson Avenue. And I gave myself three months to raise about two hundred thousand dollars. After that, I was ready to start the store.
At what point did you understand there was an opportunity for you to build a purpose-driven business, adopting a progressive approach, something that was a passion for you? And what did you take out from that process?
While on a personal journey with my family towards plastic-free living, I was willing to do more, influence at a larger scale. I discovered the bulk food stores The Source in Australia and thought "Okay cool, these guys are opening stores on a monthly basis, something is working". New Zealanders have comparable consumer behaviour, so for me, evaluating and developing a similar business was worth the risk.
My primary strategic step was getting the first store right.
Building the original store was an opportunity to learn. With the Ponsonby store, I learned to understand very quickly when and where I was going wrong — then slowly adjusting my approach. As I had never run a grocery store prior, it was a question of understanding the business side more fully. What does it cost to buy something? What can we sell for what? What are the margins? What costs are involved in running this company?
It was also about observing the market, projecting in one hundred days what was going to happen. Like in any other company, I had to justify to myself that the store was working, and if it would be working in a years time, in five years, et cetera. Even now, after a couple of years, I am continuously seeking validation that the business is worth doing. Gradually over time, little by little, I do my best to improve the business.
Can you talk us through the process of scaling up? A while ago, you set up a pop-up store in Mt Eden, what learnings came out from this experience?
The objective here with the Mt Eden space was to test a smaller corner store site in a different location, in an area with high foot traffic — cafes, restaurants and bars. But it didn't work.
The pop up worked well in terms of brand exposure. It was an opportunity for people to discover GoodFor store and those people who got on board with the concept are now shopping with us at our other stores. Mt Eden was, therefore, I think, successful in extending our customer base.
But we also learned the implications of food shopping. It seems silly, but our store has to be in an "I am going shopping for food" area, where people go specifically there for that, not for coffee, not for dinner. And with parking close to the store. It is also about time. How long will it take for people to do their groceries? I am thinking especially of mothers. I believe mothers are the most time-poor individuals, nothing to do with office workers like me, like us. We pretend we are time-poor, but when you look at it, we could free up a lot of time, notably time spent on social media. But mothers genuinely have a lot more to fit in, especially when they have to go shopping with their kids, doing three things at the same time. Mothers can't allocate too much time going to different places for food shopping. That is why having the store located in a food shopping zone is crucial for us to attract potential customers.
So we couldn't be where food was not, so this also implies being where supermarkets are. For me, with our store near a supermarket people will think "Cool, I can go to the supermarket, and I can go to GoodFor after" or "I can go to the veggie shop, I can go to GoodFor". Being close to a food shopping area is for the benefit of customers in terms of parking, with people getting supermarkets products that will complement our products. I didn't think about food shopping in terms of urban space, embedded in zone structuring a city, but I do now. It was an outstanding experience for learning.
The food available at GoodFor store is mostly organic, so the public often perceives the stores as being expensive. However, our calculations demonstrated that for an extensive range of staples, purchasing organic bulk food in your store is cheaper than packaged organic food from supermarkets. What is your sentiment on that?
I am aware GoodFor store has been stamped as being excessive in terms of pricing. We have done quite a bit of research on that in the past year, measuring ourselves against our competitors, and our prices remain competitive compared to these companies.
I don't know where people are getting their food from, but I think those who see us as pricey are probably very price-driven. They compare our cost to non-organic food in supermarkets, where the prices are ridiculously low. In my opinion, there is a lack of understanding regarding the real cost of food. I would say that for people struggling, but wanting to incorporate more organic foods, there is a balance to find between the supermarkets and us. If you’re purchasing your staples such as rice, grains, beans, et cetera and less of our snack food, then this is a realistic approach.
Given organic food is perceived as expensive, how do you see yourself democratising organic food?
90% of our food supply is organic, and we decided to get more and more organic food. Yvon Chouinard reasoning inspires me. He is the founder of Patagonia, a successful company not driven by price but quality. And that is what we are trying to do at GoodFor store. Our food is about quality.
There is a lot of food grown in New Zealand that is certified organic, yet expensive. For example, pine nuts cost more than twice the price of organic pine nuts from China. It is the same for hazelnuts, walnuts or macadamia nuts. If you want to sell these foods, you will be making less margin as a company. I assume we are going to look ridiculously expensive, but we are going to bring these New Zealand grown foods into our stores because they are of quality and we want to support local growers. We are going to tell these stories of how we brought those nuts from Nelson, New Zealand, instead of China. We want to have conversations about how this food costs less for the environment, we want to highlight the true cost of food.
On the other side, people need to be more aware of what they are buying. In general, I believe that people that choose to purchase local food over imported food — and paying more for it will respect this food more as a resource, undoubtedly food will not be simply thrown away. This is also coming back to waste.
I am aware that these ideals won't work with all our stores, restrict some people, separate a little bit until the public thoroughly educates itself. But there is a market for it, and I want to make sure we are doing the best for New Zealand growers, with key products. Currently, we buy hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, popcorn kernels, icing sugar, Kiwi Quinoa, hazelnuts, amongst others locally, I think a lot of people would be surprised as to what foods are actually grown locally. And we are continuing to source more local where we can. A lot is happening within the organic food industry here. However, food companies choose not to support local organics, and for me, that is the reason why the industry doesn't grow. If GoodFor starts to buy three tonnes of New Zealand hazelnuts a year, I can assure you it will prompt the hazelnut industry to plant more trees.
I looked at my direct competitors — some are 100% organic, and I don't think they are doing so well, being strictly organic is a disadvantage in some aspects. I believe if you want to shift the discussion around organic, you have to target a larger market. I think it is the only way we are going to convince someone who is not buying anything organic, to start buying organic. That said, since the beginning, my mission was with reducing waste, reducing packaging.
On reducing packaging waste at scale, the Kiwi Bottle Drive scheme is pushing for the New Zealand government to re-implement the nationwide bottle refund scheme (since we spoke with James, Associate Minister for the Environment Eugenie Sage announced at the end of September work was underway to design a scheme fit for purpose by August 2020). You implemented a comparable system at GoodFor store with some products. What are your views on the bottle refund scheme?
The buyback system implemented in GoodFor store works well, and we are pushing for more companies to engage, so I believe a nationwide scheme is a good idea. A friend of mine started a peanut butter company called Bay Road in Dunedin, it’s a cool brand — the jars are all screen-printed, they don't have paper labels so you can easily reuse the peanut butter jars. They are also selling peanut butter on tap at their flagship store. Besides, they are selling Bay Road into a local supermarket who sends back their jars for refills. That is pretty amazing. For me, this is going circular. Bay Road is not the first food company taking similar initiatives in the country. Fix and Fogg does this as well in Wellington with their jars and offers wholesale customers the option to return buckets. The good news is that we are going to offer our own peanut butter and tahini, produced locally.
About glass anyway, the glass recycling industry is excellent in New Zealand, they genuinely recycle. For example, bottling uses existing glass, and all beer bottles are returned to people in some way. But I like the idea of bringing back your bottles to the shop, like in Vancouver. Nobody buys new beer bottles in supermarkets there, they go to the liquor shop with the crates and grab another crate. This could work in New Zealand, and I am sure it will come at some point.
GoodFor store is facilitating people like us in reducing our packaging waste, but what about your suppliers? How do you deal with your packaging waste?
Food has specific and unique storage requirements for health and safety reasons. How we deal with packaging concerns depends on the suppliers and those relationships. Some of our suppliers are geographically close to our warehouse, hyper-local. If it concerns small food volumes, it is easy to discuss packaging and delivery options with them so they can work towards meeting our requirements. We implemented a system of container swapping with Little Bird Organics and Roar Foods, for example. Then the issue remains with burning fuel to get these foods delivered, but I believe this will be resolved shortly through Electric Vehicle (EV) transportation.
For everything sealed in soft plastic, this concerns foods loaded from somewhere and entering the country at some point, and this is a regulations requirement. At this point, this packaging problem seems for now to have no immediate solution. Unfortunately, soft plastic recycling in New Zealand is still a fragile industry. We lack the facilities to process this material and let's be honest; there is not much money to make out of soft plastic recycling. For me, it is a massive issue. It is such a big problem and suppliers concerned by soft plastic are not willing to look for alternatives despite our enquiries.
The solution could be mitigated from plant-based versus oil-based plastic. I believe all plastic should be made from plants because plant-based plastic has a shorter life cycle than the oil-based one. I am just waiting for that technology to get there. Also, plant-based materials can be composted. For me, compost is something much easier to deal with. And we have some facilities in New Zealand, like We Compost.
What disincentives do you think need to happen to discourage oil-based plastic from being produced?
I think the real cost of plastic packaging needs to be accounted for with taxes, to bring back some balance in packaging cost, it will be a game-changer. For example, companies producing drinks would immediately return to glass because this option would be now cheaper than buying plastic. There is a need for governmental intervention and taxation would be a start in realising the true cost of plastic. As a company, you should have to pay for the whole lifecycle of what you have produced. If you provide plastic bottled water, you have to pay for, right until the end of the life of that bottle. This will enforce people to use either plant-based plastics or glass.
However, the real issue of that is there is no such thing as recycling. You can only recycle plastic once, losing quality in the process, so you still need virgin plastic. In the end, one hundred per cent of plastic eventually ends up in a landfill.
Denmark was the first European country to begin charging a tax on plastic bags in 1993, reducing the amount used by half, as it became expensive to get these bags; with potential fine to people still using prohibited plastic bags. Considering what you have just said, do you think enforcement strategies are going to help the government reach goals toward plastic reduction?
I think imposing a fine on the end-customer like you and me using oil-based plastic creates a complete legal nightmare. If you strictly enforce, you have to prosecute people and this would put a strain on the legal system. I don't think the legal system would support it because it is too much work. However, at a company level, this becomes much more straightforward to manage. The government would tax non-compliant companies who were not committing to reducing their plastic consumption.
Unfortunately, local and central governments are still emphasising on recycling and keeping the responsibility for waste at the end of the supply chain, on us, individuals. Producers still packaging their goods irresponsibly are not targeted enough, not only in the food industry but also in other industries, construction or retail, to mention a few. What shifts need to occur in the broader packaging industry itself for meaningful change to be effective?
The reason why it is so challenging to ban plastic is that it impacts billion-dollar industries. These companies will never push for expensive changes when there is no billing return on it. When you think about it, those companies promoting the plastic bag ban are offering polyester, oil-based plastic bags to replace soft plastic bags, except the difference now is that they are charging for it. Big corporations are making plenty of money out of these bags, that will end up in landfills. It is just madness.
It is frustrating that people are selling out, but it is too much for people to connect all the problems, so they focused on one small thing, in our country that was carrying plastic bags. And perhaps more specifically supermarket plastic bags. During the plastic bag ban petitions, supermarkets used this as a PR opportunity, integrated it into their marketing strategies and then went on to make money out of it. It was great PR driven by consumer behaviour!
I wish New Zealand could be the first country to move towards a broader ban on plastics. I guess it is a matter of time for legislation to happen.
Advocating for plastic-free living, GoodFor store also partnered with Trees For The Future since the opening of the first store. Why Trees For The Future?
Starting GoodFor store, we wanted to bring more into the stores, have another meaning through purchases, so we partnered with Trees For The Future. We give a small amount of money compared to some of their sponsors, but it goes beyond planting trees because it also helps communities to thrive. It is a small action with a significant impact. What I liked about Trees For The Future is that you give what you can, any sized company or community can adopt the model. I believe it is cool that what you are purchasing at GoodFor store can help plant a tree. We started with this organisation, trees and plants, but eventually, we will participate in local actions, more tangible for New Zealanders.
I think in New Zealand people will connect more with our initiative if we had partnered with Million Metres. I like the one to one model, but unfortunately, Million Metres doesn't offer this currently and it was too expensive for GoodFor store to participate in their scheme. We live in a global civilisation, and I like the fact that with Trees For The Future we are having an impact outside of New Zealand. That said, it would have been cool to have done something for a fantastic sanctuary here. It is a question of timing, I guess.
What have been your greatest achievements since you opened GoodFor store? Do you have some stories to share with us?
The fact that my business is still alive is definitely a big success. And things look good for the foreseeable future. Being successful with GoodFor store did introduce me to awesome people. I had the opportunity to talk with Walter Robb (former CEO of Whole Foods), who came to the store and I ended up having dinner with, which was really cool. That time I also met Gary Hirshberg (owner of Stonyfield), we had exciting conversations. Sharing a meal with those two was an amazing experience, building knowledge, for the stores and me.
Another time, I received a message on Instagram from Adrian Grenier (actor and environmentalist, known for his role in Entourage and more recently Air New Zealand's Antarctica safety video). I ended up having an hour phone call, exchanging our shared interest in bulk food stores! And then, we had a few famous people coming through the stores, international actors like Daniel Radcliffe, and Shailene Woodley who was a regular for a bit.
This very personal journey, along with my family, my work with the stores changed many aspects of my life. I feel I am becoming an activist, heading more that way for sure. Living plastic-free and being more aware of these issues, completely re-oriented our lives, and that has made everything simpler, which I think is pretty positive.
Activism is a powerful word. What is your vision of activism? What shape does it take when you engage with others?
I think a lot of self-exploration led me to be a lot more open and passionate towards activism which often can be quite polarising. More recently I have been speaking at public events and have a few schools lined up. And in retrospect, I realise change won't happen from behind a desk, you need to get out there. At the moment, with my team, we are making time and space for scheduling talks like these.
I am pretty passionate about environmental problems, like waste, I just go to events and talk about what I know, the real issues. I started with reusable bags, now the entire kitchen is plastic-free, I started composting, and that helped reduce food scraps, et cetera. You realise that cleaning up that portion was great; it felt good, so you questioned the next step "Okay, what was there?". It just opens up this can of worms, and it is endless. Once you understand the environmental issues it is quite hard to turn back. It’s an awakening.
I think the biggest problem is that people are overloaded with information, so people don't actually get to start. But we all need to start somewhere, so for me, we have to help people on becoming aware of what positive changes they can take. My approach is one that encourages people to take action, that is my character. I think pushing is quite useful for certain people. I am not doing these talks saying "Hey, I do zero waste, and you're not", we have to protest against these attitudes, they are not effective and don't explain the why. There are more inclusive ways to encourage people. Overall it is about communication and education — opening more stores, providing greater access and raising awareness.
What is next for GoodFor store?
We are planning to open more stores. We just opened our first South Island store in Christchurch. We have Wellington coming soon, and we will probably open one in Mt Maunganui, another in New Plymouth. Newmarket is on our radar. [Since the time of writing, new stores opened in Wellington, Nelson and Stonefields (Auckland)].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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