Or a store where a full basket equals an empty bin
Anna Dimitrova and Stoycho Nakov are partners both in life and in their green business. She has worked as a software tester and Scrum Master (project management specialist) in the IT sphere, and he spent five years managing teams in the corporate world before both became the driving force behind the Eco Switch site in 2018. In the middle of 2021, they took over Station Zero from its founder Marin Yankov – a store specializing in bulk detergents and cosmetics, and products sold without packaging, as well as in environmentally friendly accessories and household goods. Both also set a personal example for living with less waste. They love nature, animals, travel, good live music, and really enjoy the feeling of doing good in the world. When they are not at their store, you can run into them around town with a sandwich in hand, or in the park making plans to further reduce waste, and in their dreams they see Station Zero multiplying and stretching from the capital to the sea.
Do you remember what specific thing made you change your habits, and what were your first steps towards reducing the waste you were creating?
For us, it was the realization that plastic pollution is a huge problem globally. There wasn’t one specific "aha" moment, but we were definitely influenced by David Attenborough's documentaries.
We started with the basics of everyday life – separating trash from recycling, using a cotton market tote and a reusable water bottle. For us, these are small steps that can significantly reduce one's plastic footprint without investing much effort, time and money.
What was your biggest personal challenge early on and how did you overcome it? And what do you find difficult today?
One of the biggest initial challenges came when we realized that we were completely inundated with plastic. We started reading various reports, watching more documentaries, and generally taking an interest in the subject, but it made us feel somehow insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This is when we made the fateful decision to not just go with the flow, but to use that very moment of hesitation to do something about it. That's how we took on the mission of helping more people live with less plastic, and we're still doing it four years later.
At first, some things seemed overwhelming, like how to remove all the plastic from the bathroom, for example, but keeping at it and building habits over time helped us turn our new zero-waste habits into a way of life.
Today, food products make it difficult for us – there are niche stores that offer bulk food, but they are few and far between, and when it comes to everyday shopping, the mission of zero-waste shopping often becomes complicated.
Many people still find it too laborious and time-consuming to think about the waste from the products they use. What do you think needs to change for the effort to reduce waste to become more mainstream?
Change needs to happen in three main directions – legislation, business and personal efforts. People find it laborious to deal with all the waste in large part because the linear economy that encourages the production of more and more goods has led us to a point where we are inundated with new and cheaper products that break suspiciously fast.
We are optimists and we believe that the green change is already happening, and the beginnings of it are already underway. The EU directive that banned certain single-use products has been in place for more than a year, and the transition to a circular economy is set as a priority in the European Green Deal.
Business also plays a key role. We have an insider perspective on how a small to medium business such as ours can operate. We can say from experience that there is a huge potential for waste reduction in businesses.
However, we must not forget that all of us consumers also have the power to change things.
Your first joint venture in this field is the site EcoSwitch, which sells products that do not use single-use plastic. What are your impressions from your customers – are they growing in number and what is their profile? Do you have customers outside the big cities?
We launched Eco Switch in 2018, and it's safe to say that since then, we've seen not only an increase in customer numbers, but also an increased focus on plastic pollution more generally. Over the years, we have met many people and organizations who are doing something about it, and new green businesses have also cropped up, which makes us really happy. The media also plays a big role, the topic is being discussed more and more often.
We were pleasantly surprised when Eco Switch opened and we soon began to receive orders from many different small towns and villages; although the core of our customer base is in the big cities, we absolutely cannot write off small towns and villages, which is great.
Contrary to our expectations that only young people would buy from us, we see that there is interest from older people as well, and that makes us very happy. As to the gender of our customers, there is certainly a specific profile – over 90% of our customers are women.
In 2021, you took over Station Zero. What were your expectations and what surprised you about this experience?
We were pleasantly surprised that after the pandemic and the huge boom in online shopping, people still prefer to come to us in person and chat while shopping. We expected that the whole concept of bulk shopping for everyday products would be a little harder to accept, but even people who come across us by accident immediately grasp and embrace the idea. We also try to establish good practices in the business to help other stores reduce their waste to a minimum.
What are your tips for avoiding so-called greenwashing and what we should pay attention to when choosing products?
This trend is based on people's desire to live in an environmentally conscious manner. There are many tricks on the market – the color green is being used more and more, words like "eco" and "bio" get thrown around, but the best way to avoid these practices remains to follow the zero waste principles: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. The main thing is to generally avoid unnecessary products, to fight the impulse to buy new things whatever the cost, to readjust our habits and to realize that buying more "eco" products does not make us more ecological.
How do you disprove the “disinformation” that one person cannot make a difference and that shopping "eco" is a privilege of the wealthy?
The transience of our interactions with disposable products creates the false impression that they are not important, but the truth is very different. Personal example remains the best way to motivate someone to make a change. It sets the wheel in motion and inevitably yields a result, because it also changes the business that depends on the consumer deciding where to spend money. Eco products often seem more expensive at first glance, but they actually save us money. Like reusable thermos bottles or bulk shopping. At our store, all products are priced lower than their packaged counterparts, because the cost of packaging is not part of the equation. Eco-friendly living is above all a matter of conscious and sustainable consumption, not a direct replacement of disposable products with reusable ones.
You love to travel. What do you always bring with you on the road in order to follow the principle of less waste, and what are some tricks that others could adopt?
We try to be organized when we travel and have a checklist of things to bring with us. This includes ecologically friendly things that we always have on us – a reusable bottle and cup, a cotton tote, a wax sandwich bag and metal straws. We also always carry some of our bulk cosmetics so we don't have to use toiletries in the hotels and places where we stay.
We get asked quite often about air travel and there are a few tricks we can share. It's a myth that metal bottles and cups are a problem at security – as long as they’re empty, it’s fine. We pass through the scanners with an empty bottle and then fill it up. More and more airports have water refilling stations.
It's also not a problem to bring your own food – we carry home-made sandwiches in wax wrappers and thus avoid the plastic packaging from the sandwiches that are offered on the plane (and this means our snacks are tastier and cheaper too).
For cosmetics, you can rely on non-liquid alternatives – for example, solid shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste tablets. That way your luggage is more compact and you don't have to worry about liquid restrictions.
What are your favorite leisure or entertainment destinations?
We like to change things up and we combine the sea with the mountains quite often. More and more often we find pleasant and new (to us) places in Bulgaria for our vacations.
As for entertainment, we often go to concerts and festivals. We just had to close the shop because everyone on our team had tickets for the Arctic Monkeys concert in Burgas.
When is it easiest and hardest for you to follow yourself?
It's easiest when you've tried a hundred things that excite you and you've come to the conclusion that you want to be doing exactly the thing you’re currently doing. It is easy because it is not just a guess, but an experience full of difficulties and uncertain moments that you’ve made the effort to overcome. The most difficult are the moments of burnout, when the most basic things in everyday life become slow and difficult for us, and uncertainty creeps in and distracts us from our goals. When we notice that this is happening, we simply take a break and switch off for a while.
This interview is part of the #followmyself series in collaboration with Fashion Days.
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