A few years ago, as they ventured three hours down a logging road in Haida Gwaii, deep into the Pacific Northwest wilderness, Brianne Miller and her friend discovered that, even there, humans had left their mark. They managed to pick up a couple bags of garbage as they walked along the coastline. "It was literally one of the most remote places I've ever been; there's nothing between Haida Gwaii and Japan, but we still found garbage," Miller laments. It made her realize that "we need to tackle waste at the source." And the idea for a zero-waste grocery store began to take root.
Miller founded the Zero Waste Market, recently rebranded Nada, with the "goal of cultivating a better world by changing the way people shop for groceries." For the last year and a half, the monthly Nada pop-up shop has been held at outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, steadily building a strong base of environmentally aware consumers. Organic dry goods, olive oil, coffee and homemade baked goods, as well as locally made soap are available for sale in bulk, eliminating extra packaging and waste. Instead, customers bring their own bags and bottles or purchase reusable containers on site.
"We deal with phenomenal businesses doing cool things, " Miller notes. "Many are female-led or Indigenous-run local businesses with a focus on sustainability.”
Miller believes it's important to "connect people to their food, and share why we source from a particular company." All of the products have a story, and team members boast an encyclopedic knowledge of how and where products are sourced. It's a more purposeful, attentive shopping experience that tends to attract a socially minded community.
Another formative moment in Miller's journey towards zero-waste advocacy occurred while she was doing her masters in marine biology. As part of her marine mammal observation in Northern Quebec, she was studying the region's whales, focusing on how they were impacted by human-generated underwater sound from construction and shipping. A local construction company was working on a huge building, and the pile -driving they were doing reverberated deep into the earth, disturbing whales in the waters nearby. Her job was to watch for whales and, when one came through, she would signal the workers to stop.
By herself, in the middle of nowhere, directly observing human impact on marine animals, she started to think about what she could do personally to save the environment. After listening to "hundreds of hours of podcasts," she began to get more interested in local food systems and supply-chain sustainability, directly linking a lot of the problems to the food system, including fertilizers, shipping, underwater noise, changes in habitat use, and climate change. “The zero-waste grocery idea was a summary of everything I'd learned," she says. Soon after, she got a job in Vancouver doing marine mammal work, and she started the zero -waste market on the side.
Through SFU's Accelerated Business Program and RADIUS Slingshot Accelerator program, which offers an investment pool for social ventures, Miller "learned about business, did tons of market research, and did a lot of work on the backend." Through pop-up shops and product testing, Nada has gradually honed its offerings to a finely curated ethical selection.
A brick-and-mortar store could be up and running as soon as January. They have a lease and a location in East Van. Miller believes that our culture’s interest in sustainable living will “only increase as people become more educated about environmental problems. We live on a planet with finite resources, and I believe that every small action counts."
• Amy Logan is a Vancouver writer, editor and English instructor with an ear for trends in the arts, community and environment. She is a regular contributor to Metro News, and joins the Westender for the summer to explore the artists, creatives, environmentalists and adventurers who make Vancouver tick.