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We’re all thinking more about plastic. Recent hard-hitting nature documentaries have shown what we’ve known for a long time: the suffering and damage caused by our disposable attitudes to one of the 20th century’s wonder-products. Thinking about plastic is one thing, but Debbie Groom wanted to do more. In December 2018 she opened Just Footprints, providing the people of Chester with a more environmentally friendly way to shop. As its six-month anniversary approaches, Debbie spoke to us about the successes and challenges so far and gave us her own tips for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Debbie’s story is both identifiable and remarkable. Her daughter was doing work experience in Cornwall with Surfers Against Sewage. Beach cleaning was a horror show. The plastic washed up from the Atlantic on Cornwall’s famous beaches was relentless. The residents were fighting back, with plastic-free and environmentally friendly shops a common sight. When Debbie and her family returned home, they wanted to see if they could be plastic-free for just one week. After even the first family shop proved almost impossible, the idea of opening something similar to what they’d seen in Cornwall for the people of Chester, started to take root.

Starting as she meant to go on

Each decision Debbie made about the shop, put the environmental impact front and centre. This began even with the construction of the store. Almost everything the shop is made from is reclaimed or recycled, including the shelving and the floor. A highlight is the low wall fencing off the activity area. This is made from the pallets the original orders were delivered on. Standing on their side, they are the perfect height, creating a sense of space, and symbolising the creativity often at the heart of repurposing material. Horror and hope are side by side. A large picture of a plastic-strewn beach contrasts with the positive messages written on chalkboards. Debbie knows that people’s inaction about environmental damage is often due to a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. Entering Just Footprints, makes you feel positive again and that you can make a difference.

Myths and misconceptions

Debbie is keen to dispel some of the myths about environmentally friendly shopping. She often sees people hovering at the entrance, unsure whether they can bring their own plastic bags inside. “Of course, they can,” is her answer. “The plastic has been made now! They should make the most use out of it.” It also comes as a surprise to some of her customers that not everything in the shop is organic. Many things are organic. But Debbie wants to create a shopping experience that balances the demands of the environment, with cost. If the cost of an organic product puts off a buyer, then that’s a problem. There are many products that are still better for the environment than what you would find in a supermarket but have not been produced under the strict circumstances required for organic certification. She always opts for the greater good.

The shop is not ‘plastic-free’

This can also come as a surprise. Obviously, Debbie looks forward to a time when plastic is no longer the norm. However, it’s single use plastic that’s the current enemy. Reusing something that has been designed to be single use, is a small victory. For example, large plastic containers store bulk quantities of cleaning supplies. Customers can bring in their own containers from home, which may indeed be made of plastic, and pour in the amount they need. She also sells many products that are designed to replace single use plastics. Metal straws (with cleaning rods), cloth sandwich bags, an exciting array of coffee cups and water bottles, colourful and reusable sanitary pads all catch the eye. Then there are the products that usually come in plastic packaging, but here can be bought ‘loose’. Bars of soap, toothpaste (yes! – in tablet form), shampoo, deodorant, as well as herbs, spices, beans, flour, rice, tea, coffee, sugar, the jars line the shelves (not to mention smell amazing!). She even has a gluten free flour and pasta area (though is careful to advise customers with allergies about the possibility of cross contamination).

And how do customers take these ‘loose’ items home?

Debbie encourages customers to bring their own packaging but does also offer a range of paper bags and glass jars for sale. Shopping like this, weighing out your own items on the scales provided, seems like a fun novelty to most younger shoppers. However, Debbie has had many positive comments from older customers, who appreciate the return to a more traditional way of doing their shopping, as well as the ability to buy smaller quantities and reduce waste. Shoppers are often pleasantly surprised when they get to the till, a recent shopper purchasing a quantity of herbs for £0.04! Many of the items of packaging sold in the store are themselves recycled, for example using small jam jars recycled from local hotels. Some things do seem more expensive, but Debbie believes that buying cheaper versions is false economy, both for our health and for the planet. Most things are similarly priced, some are more expensive, a few are actually cheaper, and the ability to buy only what you need, often brings savings.

Another value that Just Footprints champions is that of community

Just Footprints is active on social media, connecting with other businesses, charities and organisations in Chester with shared and similar goals. Regular activities, such as knitting and crochet workshops, are held in the meeting space at the back and Debbie is keen to extend this further in the future, with school visits and more outreach. A ‘Suggestions’ board in the shop allows her to listen to her customers and find out what they want to see. She researches each product meticulously before introducing it and is honest when she knows that customers are better pointed elsewhere. She does not, for example, sell reusable nappies, because she acknowledges how expensive an outlay it is for new parents. Instead, she directs customers to a local business (Lizzie’s Real Nappies) which offers customers a better alternative still in keeping with her values.

The first six months have been hard work, but worth it

For Debbie, the biggest success has been the community support and the opportunity to provide people with a well-needed alternative for their shopping. In the next sixth months, she has big plans for more community events and hopes to bring even more of the customer requested items into her store. The occasional weekend off would be a bonus! She would also like to see the Forum turned into a real hub of independent shopping, and a destination for more environmentally savvy buyers, who want local, high quality, independent products.

Some final tips

Debbie gave the following advice:

“Don’t try and change everything at once. It’s too hard. Change one thing,

and keep it up. Then, when you are ready, change the next thing. Keep going.

Don’t give up.”

Just Footprints certainly makes it easy to change one thing. Whether you’re looking for a gift for an environmentally conscious friend, a green treat for yourself, or the beginning of a whole new way of life, this store is a welcoming and important place to start.

Just Footprints is located in the Forum opposite The Market. Opening hours are 9am – 5.30pm Monday to Sat, 11am – 4pm on Sunday. You can follow them online, on Twitter or check out their Facebook page for upcoming events and product news.