Written by John Williams
Jackson Mulligan, founder and owner of Refill Nation, is the first to admit that bulk buying is not a new concept – it’s how my grandparents would have shopped, he says. His spin is based on affordability, accessibility, and most importantly sustainability. Jackson is on a Zoom call, from his recently opened second store in Titirangi, and he is clearly passionate about the business he started up on the Te AtatūPeninsula two years ago.
“I’d always had a desire to run my own business, but not just any business; one that would lead to change and also have a connection to community. And then a site became available at The Point, a new retail complex in Te Atatu, where I live… and I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a wholefoods refill store went in here? I love food, I love cooking, baking, and I really wanted to connect with my community. I also saw the sustainability opportunity, as so many locals are waking up to how much waste is being brought into the home through food and consumable products.
Although he had no direct experience in food or retail, Jackson had confidence in his experience as a commercial accountant, and his belief that there was a demand for this kind of waste-free shopping He’s also a people person, and believes it was his customer experience that would lead to connecting with communities, and ultimately to the success of his business.
“One of my biggest drivers has been to make shopping as easy as possible for people – to remove barriers and provide a clean, comfortable shopping environment, giving customers a great experience – but also to not walk away with a big hole in their pocket. I really want Refill Nation to be an affordable shopping option for as many people as possible by offering products that are both conventional and organic.”
On the other side of the retail equation, Jackson prioritises being sustainable when it comes to sourcing the food and products he sells.
“I like to know where my products come from, and to learn about the people and the places the ingredients are sourced. Our coffee suppliers are a great example – they have a great relationship with their farmers and they really look after them. So I try and work with those types of businesses as much as I can.”
As a business, Jackson also tries to align Refill Nation with like-minded companies, such as choosing to partner with Ecotricity, a business providing Aotearoa with 100% renewable and carboNZero certified electricity
Above all, Jackson’s primary goal is to help his customers’ avoid single-use plastic. It is estimated that 20 percent of landfill in New Zealand is made up of plastic waste – and the majority of this comes from food packaging.
“As Kiwis, we have a chance to lead the world on reducing plastic pollution,” he says. “By simply evolving our shopping habits, we wholeheartedly believe in the positive impact we can have on our environment, our community, and our future generations.”
Jackson is not against the use of reusable plastics, just what he sees as the wasteful and unnecessary use of single-use plastic. He says it’s important that people take stock of how much they use on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, and work out where they can use alternative ways of transporting and storing food or goods. And that’s where he tries with his business to educate and help people.
“I’m all about trying to reduce our day-to-day use before we even get into the recycling conversation, which can be complex and confusing. If we use less plastic, there’s less to be recycled. I encourage people to think before they buy. Ask yourself, is the item that’s wrapped in plastic available loosely, or in cardboard? If it is, make that choice. Unfortunately, plastic packaging is usually a marketing ploy of selling convenience. Which is a shame.”
“Buying food in a packet may be quicker when you’re in the store, but when you think about it, all the foods that you buy in plastic have to be taken out of that packaging and stored when you get it home. If you bring some of those containers with you, then you will actually save time, because there’s no unpacking at home, no taking out the waste packaging to the bin.”
“At Refill Nation, we encourage people to bring in whatever containers they have. We don’t have any bias or judgment on the containers people bring in. Used ice cream tubs are okay with us,” he says.
Despite now having the responsibility of running two stores, Jackson is still very hands-on, and loves interacting with his customers and his regulars. “I like having conversations with people about what they’re making, what’s happening in their day, or what they’re going off to do on the weekend. And you really do have that personal connection in these small communities, like Te Atatu and Titirangi.
“I have no big plans to expand any time soon. I’m still very much a small business at present, just winging my way,” he laughs. “But I’d love to expand, if it meant other communities could benefit from affordable and sustainable ways of shopping.”
For now though, he’s just taking his time and enjoying helping people start their low-waste shopping journeys.