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Believing that zero-waste doesn’t mean sacrificing choice, he opened a BYOB refillery in KL

While working with Rip Curl, an Australian surf-wear brand, Jon Lee participated in numerous beach cleanups. Although he’s never encountered sea turtles strangled by plastic straws as often depicted in awareness ads, he has witnessed other scenes that he’s never forgotten. 

“I saw a dead dolphin washed up to shore on an Indonesian island we were cleaning up. [It was] a beach with more trash than the eye could see; you couldn’t even imagine how that could happen, and you’re at a loss at whether it was even possible to clean up,” he told me during my visit to his pop-up refillery, Re{me}dy inside the lifestyle store Vernakular in Bangsar.

Not too long ago, he’d also mourned the passing of a friend. Shocked and in disbelief, Jon had a sudden realisation that the unfortunate incident could’ve happened to him instead.

“This is where I decided to do a deep soul searching exercise to discover what was truly of value to me; what I would regret most if I didn’t try to do [in the event] I pass the next day,” Jon remembered thinking. 

While on an indefinite sabbatical from his Chief Marketing Officer role at the notebook brand ana tomy, Jon launched Re{me}dy in January 2021 with investments from some friends.

Not exactly a zero-waste store

Re{me}dy is a sustainable health and skincare concept store that stocks products from local brands that share the same ideals of becoming environmentally sustainable. Customers can refill the products from Re{me}dy’s refillery by reusing empty bottles. This, in turn, helps reduce waste that gets dumped in landfills.

Jon showing me how refilling bottles at the store usually happens

Of course, Re{me}dy is coming into a very competitive space, with players like The Hive, Liquid Etc, A Bit Less, and NUDE already having a presence in the Klang Valley. It’s not exactly a bad thing, as having more options fighting for a good cause is valuable in the midst of our dying planet.

And while Re{me}dy’s concept sounds like a zero-waste (ZW) store on the surface, Jon wouldn’t exactly call it that.

He perceives ZW stores as ones that try to sell everything, yet with limited choices for each product. “[For example,] if you want to buy a body gel, there are only 2 choices and that’s it. I felt like I had to sacrifice my life just to practice sustainability and I think it’s a little intimidating sometimes, especially for regular people,” added Jon.

The name Re{me}dy was chosen as the team believes that their products are in fact natural remedies that are beneficial to humans and the planet. The {me} represents how they want to build a personalised experience, like making your own blend for a face wash or customising a supplement based on your specific health concerns. 

“At Re{me}dy, we just focus on health and beauty products, somewhat like an apothecary,” Jon said.

Packaging is still unavoidable with e-commerce

The draw of Re{me}dy is in its retail experience where customers can walk in to browse products in huge bottles to refill their own smaller ones. But upon finally opening its doors in January 2021, the nation soon went back into lockdown.

Jon shared, “E-commerce was not what we envisioned for Re{me}dy to be. We wanted to reduce waste and e-commerce is one of the biggest waste contributors from packaging!” 

When it comes to e-commerce, packaging is just unavoidable / Image Credit: Re{me}dy

Selling products online means packing products in boxes and shipping them out, contributing to more greenhouse gasses in the process. Furthermore, Re{me}dy’s bottles are also made of glass as they’re easier to clean out and reuse. Thus, protective packaging is needed. 

Brainstorming for a whole month, the team finally landed on using upcycled bubble wrap; it was the best option they had with the resources they could access.

“Though we can’t change the way e-commerce is done right now, we could show people that we can reuse the packaging instead of just chucking it,” Jon explained.

Hopefully, customers who ordered online would make the effort to refill these products’ at the brand’s physical store once they run out. Therefore, the glass bottles supplied would be given more chances at being reused.

Housed in a historic building

Inside of Re{me}dy’s retail store / Image Credit: Re{me}dy

High-density neighbourhoods within KL and PJ are often beneficial for ZW stores due to the high-income demographics of those living in the area. However, Re{me}dy’s store is in Off Kampung Attap, KL, housed inside the historic Zhongshan Building that has been turned into an art gallery of sorts.

When asked about this, Jon agreed that it is a difficult location for a refillery to thrive in, since it’s far from residential areas. But he’s got a different strategy.

“It is a cool spot that trendsetters like to visit and this is exactly what we intended for Re{me}dy, where we want to convert the unconverted,” he justified. “Our purpose was to inspire the people who haven’t picked up a refillery product to do so, and hope that they will fall in love with it and continue with it for the rest of their life.”  

Jon also admitted that the location choice wasn’t the most strategic for the business, but he thinks being housed inside the Zhongshan Building is fitting for his brand.

“It’s a pre-war building with the principle of conserving and using the building for a long time. It’s very in line with our concept of reducing waste,” he added.

Reaching business sustainability

Re{me}dy still remains in the red, worsened by the lockdown and the public still wary of going retail shopping. While e-commerce has helped a little, the brand has looked into other options like corporate gifting. 

All bottles are labelled with the product it’s filled with / Image Credit: Re{me}dy

So far, Re{me}dy has managed to collaborate with BMW in being a part of the latter’s care package to its car owners. It was done as a #KitaJagaKita campaign to help local brands promote locally made products.

Though little income was made for Re{me}dy through it, the initiative did help with the brand’s exposure.

In the long term, Jon wants to convert the brand into a social enterprise with volunteers running it as a community effort. 

“I cannot expect the same commitment to the project as I have, but hopefully we can get more help and make it a better reality,” he concluded.

  • You can learn more about Re{me}dy here.
  • You can read about more zero waste stores we’ve written here.

Featured Image Credit: Jon Lee, founder of Re{me}dy

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