Alex Kertész, the founder of GreenDale ABC located in Miskolc, Hungary has talked about conscious shopping, sustainability, and the mental perspectives of the eco-friendly lifestyle.
An important element of the smaller ecological footprint is conscious shopping, as we can protect our environment from the production of a lot of waste with small changes. GreenDale ABC, based in Miskolc, is just one of the packaging-free stores that are growing in Hungary. The owner of the shop, Alex Kertész, was at our disposal to our great delight when we approached you to share your experience with us on the subject. What can we do at the individual level against global problems? What should we prepare for before we visit a zero waste shop for the first time? Such and similar questions are answered in the first chapter of the REbot interview series.
The story of GreenDale
Where did the idea to open a waste-free shop in a rural town come from?
Even before the Covid epidemic — which was suspected to be here some time, but it was impossible to know for sure when — I quit my job at the time, and then, like others, I couldn’t find a job for a long time. Environmentally conscious thinking had been a part of my life until then, and I thought if I already had a vision for something, it was worth dealing with. I wanted to spend my time with something useful, and in parallel came a support opportunity. I felt the two together were a strong enough signal to start something with this, so the story of GreenDale started.
In Hungary, the topic of sustainability is not so much in the public consciousness, it is not natural for everyone to pay attention to such things. How do you see this?
I think he's in the public consciousness. I went to school in Borsod county, and not specifically to elite places, but there was a lot of talk about the topic there as well. Activeness is what lags behind. Environmental information reaches people in a way that many people think is unnecessary on an individual level, so it is not our responsibility. Industry players say that production operates on a supply-demand basis, with administrations stating that it is the job of the economy to steer demand in this direction. So everyone is pointing at everyone and there is no solution that will lead people toward active environmental awareness.
But people are basically aware that garbage production is bad, and that climate change is affecting us. We sense that we sledged all winter ten years ago, and today there is hardly any snow this season, or if it does, it melts quickly. Winter does not have the nature of winter, it is not possible to go out in the sun in summer, because being European people, our skin is not prepared for such strong sunlight. This is all perceived by people, but they are not aware that we can do it at the level of individual responsibility. I think the bigger problem is here, not that people don’t get the information.
A lot of people know it’s okay if I buy something in a nylon bag that I throw away right after that and it will never be used again. There are just those who don’t care or distract themselves to free themselves from a sense of responsibility.
Where did the environmentally-conscious basic position and interest come to you?
I did not receive such an upbringing purposefully as a child, but my parents had similar aspirations. I don't know how conscious that was. But there were still redeemable bottles at the time, that’s where products came in, like soda water, which we consumed instead of mineral water. If the parenting background is right, it’s natural for most kids not to throw away the trash. What’s more, we’re in a pretty lucky position right now, as development isn’t always bad: the internet opens up a lot of gates, and I’m actually inspired by that too.
Their sensitivity to animals was a little different than mine, but it was also typical of my parents. We basically lived a farm life, with a big gate, and our own garden. There was backyard animal husbandry and breeding. My parents followed this lifestyle as long as it was functional, and there were aspirants who cultivated and bred it. What we could not produce was in many cases available from home, from dairy products to nuts to meat. I don’t know how much of this was an obvious alternative for them, in order to consume as little processed food as possible, rather than consciously protecting the environment.
This was natural even a few decades ago, especially in a smaller settlement. Without going too far into the past or embarking on an analysis on this topic without expertise, perhaps it can be said that the expansion of Western-type consumer society has fundamentally changed the relationship between supply and demand, and in many places, the conditions for this type of backyard production are not in place.
As a child, I found that people - I don’t know if for financial reasons or not - bought the products that were important. For us, throwing food out was virtually impossible because we bought as much food as we ate. In this respect, it was also easier to keep the measure. For example, if we needed pasta, we went over to Aunt Marika, who made it, and took as much of it as we needed. It wasn’t that it was only available in half-pound, quarter-pound packs. My mom knew what foods we were going to eat this week and also what ingredients she was going to run out of - we bought that much. Now that they also live in Budapest, mostly not without waste, it already occurs to them that a quarter of a kilo of rice is left on the kitchen shelf, which has not been cooked, and which is not enough on its own - so it accumulates more junk food.
How to buy at a zero-waste shop?
However, zero waste stores like GreenDale do not have such restrictions. Were there any opinions, especially that you run such a store in Miskolc, that it would not work because people are not socialized for it?
It must be seen that this is a new thing, not only in Hungary but even in the whole world in a rudimentary phase. Environmental awareness is not necessarily a priority for people, especially not in Northern Hungary, which is one of the poorest parts of the country. Nevertheless, our customers come from a very mixed environment. I think this is more a matter of time and information flow, it does not depend on the economic strength of the region. The internet also helps a lot in this, you can be informed about such aspirations, people can see what it is, in what respect it is convenient or inconvenient for them.
If I want to shop at a waste-free store, I have to be prepared to say yes, I’ve gone to Tesco so far, put together everything I’ve seen and what I thought was necessary for my big monthly shopping. In places like ours, you have to figure out in advance what you want to buy and how much of it. And at first, not everyone is sure to hit the measure. If someone wants to buy a pound of rice but brings a container that can only hold half a pound, the next time they have to bring either two containers or arrive with a larger container. It has an evolution, it has to evolve who gets what. Whether it is a bag, a textile bag is more convenient or better, if the customer arrives with a mason jar, or food barrel, even depending on who is out to store the food at home.
I think this is more of a challenge for new entrants than it is whether they want to deal with it on a conscious level. For most people, it’s a pleasant feeling to be able to tell yourself that you’re taking my share of social responsibility. If you’re not environmentally conscious, then at least by not fighting on the street, or if I see something like that, I’d rather try to help. It makes most people feel good to pay attention to their surroundings, just not everyone can find a way to do so. There are those who simply need more guidance to invent themselves.
What types of products are worth looking for in zero-waste stores?
It very much depends on the buying medium of the particular store, who wants to buy what. A lot of things can already be obtained without packaging, and obviously everyone puts on the shelf the product that customers want to see there. We are mainly dealing with dry long-term food, seeds, semi-finished foods, handicrafts, the selection is quite wide, but you can also buy dairy products and vegetables in many places. Obviously, these stores have more traffic than mine. There are also pre-orders in many places because someone is going to listen, I would go in for a few gallons of producer milk on Wednesday, and the store will arrange to have the right amount of the product requested by then. There is much more to look for in local markets. Where there is no market or no particular product in the market, you are more likely to find that product at your local zero waste store.
What kind of medium do your customers typically come from?
This is also determined by the place of operation. In Budapest, I sometimes experience going into a store and feeling such an "elite medium" atmosphere that frustrates me as well. Interestingly, in Miskolc, the often-mentioned hierarchy of needs in Maslow develops a little differently: environmental awareness is not only afforded by those living in relative financial security. I don’t want to give specific examples, but some of our customers don’t necessarily come from elite office workers. Some work in factories, but there are also customers from the civil service sector. This is only partly surprising, as it does not appear in the store in terms of prices that conscious shopping would only be a toy for those with higher earnings.
However, the fact that many people pay attention to this even with obvious everyday problems is a very positive surprise. When I have financial difficulties, I push a lot of things into the background, I can solve the situation. The most important problem for a low-income buyer on paper is not how much garbage they produce, especially if it is even a mother at the same time, as having a child requires financial sacrifices. With such daily headaches, who cares what happens in the oceans? This is completely understandable in some ways, but nonetheless, I often see people in the store who I know aren’t their primary problem, yet pay attention to it. Even if for them, it requires more sacrifice than for others who may lead a more comfortable lifestyle.
Can we state that environmental awareness does not depend on income conditions?
I experienced that.
For someone who hasn’t been to a similar store yet, what should you take with you for the first time?
I would first look apart at home to see what is available. Most households have nylon bags, the first step may be to reuse them. Throwing these in the trash without use is a bigger problem than having some of them in the drawer at home and doing good service at times. It all makes more sense than when we buy something to throw it away. So you can start building nicely. For my part, I prefer textile bags because they are easy to handle, flexible, and easy to pack. Mason jars and food barrels can also be used well, only due to their nature their limitations are different, and a certain amount can fit in them. But these are personalized things, evolving along with individual tastes.
What we need to be prepared for is that in such a store, it is not necessarily the brands, the producers who are the suppliers of the big chains that will come to face us. In the first round, many people do a trial purchase to get to know the specific products, to get to know them, and only then arrive with containers that are also suitable for larger packaging.
The easiest way is to take the container in which we would store the given product at home - a worse less, as this way we don't have to spend time pouring the purchased goods into the home container after the purchase. If someone doesn’t use some type of food arrangement in the household, it’s worth cutting in! The kitchen will be much more transparent if not only bagged goods are piled up, and maybe at the next cleaning, we will only see that we have already bought something.
To take the first steps, we don’t have to go to a specifically waste-free store, as nowadays, people don’t look ugly at a mall anymore if you take the baked goods to the checkout in a textile bag. What is your experience?
In many places, they still prefer transparent bags, but vegetables and basic food can be ordered in their own containers, bags at markets, supermarkets, and smaller shops. There are supermarkets that specifically put these reusable containers in the vegetable department that only need to be bought once and can be used for years after that.
What is a more interesting question is the purchase of the restaurant and meat products. I am not involved in the latter, but a great many say that not all butchers are happy to put meat in the box they carry.
What could be the reason for this?
I do not know. There may be reasons for quality assurance and food safety, such that the given container may not be cleaned as required by an official regulation, and there may be quality complaints about this, but this is just a hint. I think anyone who buys this way won’t have a problem with it, especially if there’s such a problem, it’s much easier to feel it when you take over, say, an open food barrel than when the product is tied up in a bag.
Spiritual aspects of environmental awareness
Many, whether out of interest or for self-excuse, ignore global problems, accounting for environmental awareness as some kind of gentlemanly, hipster stupidity. There are also voices on the comment walls that since it’s better for anyone than to do it, you’re buying waste-free if you then get into the same car with an internal combustion engine, in the same way, to take home the products you bought? What do you think about this?
Yes, I feel more, but not in others, but in myself. Eco-awareness is not about positioning myself above others. The point of individual responsibility is not that I am more responsible than my neighbor, but that I do what I can. It works to the extent that one can incorporate it into one’s life and does not put frustration on it to make them feel uncomfortable. By definition, that’s why I feel more. What I can do, I do what I can’t do, so I won’t overwhelm myself. If I’ve thrown out 10 units of trash so far and consciously choose to grab only eight from now on, I’ve already become a degree more environmentally conscious compared to my previous self.
It’s cliché, but after all, it’s a step-by-step push of the comfort zone, which also has a good effect on mental health. You mentioned that there are pre-orders and home delivery in many places. How are you standing in this field?
Pre-ordering is always welcome as we compile the store offerings according to what most people are looking for. This, of course, is time, as we do not procure the products available in the store in one- or quarter-kilo packages. This makes it more difficult to meet individual needs, but if more people are looking for something, we tend to get those products. The principle of operation can be illustrated quite simply: if I order five kilos of something and only one kilo runs out, the remaining four have to be discarded, we are better off in the long run if someone gets that product in a small package, in plastic packaging. This is because four kilograms of food waste has the same ecological footprint in municipal waste as plastic in a selective collector.
Home delivery is scheduled to be available soon, and all the related information will be available on Facebook and the website, but pre-ordering is already working. Many times we don't even look for food-type products in this way, because most people don't start the change here, but in bathroom products, for example, for the permanent replacement of disposable things. As a first step, it’s easier when you have to get used to washing things out and not throwing them away. These are minor changes, but they are just as much a part of the process as starting to consciously plan shopping instead of impulsive decisions.
Are you consciously buying? Do you know similar stores? Share with us how you do for the environment in everyday life and you’ll love playing points in the interactive REbot challenge!