Start a Bulk Buyers Club

Bulk sections are popping up in grocery stores all over the country, even in places you wouldn’t expect them like in Walmart. This is great news for several reasons:

  1. Buying in bulk reduces the cost of goods that I like to buy, often significantly. I like to buy organic over conventional foods because I don’t want farm workers or farming communities exposed to toxic chemicals, and I don’t want any residue of those chemicals in my body. Organic goods are usually more expensive than conventional, but buy buying in bulk, I can usually make it cheaper to buy the organic product than it would be to buy the pre-packaged conventional product.
  2. Buying in bulk reduces packaging waste. When I bring my own container and fill it from the bulk bins, I typically am reducing packaging waste. I say reducing and not eliminating because the goods going into my refillable container typically got delivered to the store in a single-use container of some kind.
  3. Buying in bulk can reduce food waste. When I only buy as much food as I need, I throw away less food. Food waste is a big environmental issue that we can fix by buying smarter (learn more) and a waste of money.

For me, it is easy to buy in bulk living in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to countless stores that offer the ability to bring your own container and fill it with all kinds of staples and speciality items. However, what do you do if you live places where bulk bins don’t exist? How can you save money on organic goods, reduce food waste and reduce packaging waste? The solution is to form a Bulk Buyers Club: get a few friends together, buy large quantities of products from online retailers, local merchants and stores like Costco and Sam’s Club to get a good price, and then divide up what you purchase to have reasonable quantity of food per person so you reduce the storage space you need and the risk of things going bad before you eat them. I live in a house with fifteen roommates; for $200 per month per person, our pantries and refrigerators are stocked with high-end organic foods such as organic almond butter, organic smoothie bar, organic avocados, organic fruits & vegetables, all of the pantry staples you can imagine and then some, fair-trade organic coffee, grass-fed beef, organic dairy, etc. We are effectively a co-located bulk buyers club, but you don’t have to have to live with anyone else to form a bulk buyers club of your own.

How to set up your own bulk buyers club:

  1. Identify a few friends who like to buy similar things to you. It will be easier to administer if everyone in the group wants to split up all purchases, but you can certainly have people select which good they want to go in on and figure out how to split up costs from there. If you and your friends have different tastes, try using NextDoor to find neighbors with similar buying preferences who want to try it out!
  2. Determine what products to order and what quantities to buy. Do you want to have enough goods to last you a few weeks, a month or a few months? Decide how often your buyers club will meet and based off of that, how much each person will need and how much you should buy in total. To reduce cardboard packaging waste when ordering online, try to place orders for as many products as possible at a time from a single vendor so they all ship in a single box.
  3. Choose the slowest shipping method. Shipping goods across the country in a truck emits less greenhouse gases than shipping those goods in a plane. If you are buying goods online, try to plan in advance and use ground shipping.
  4. Collect jars to fill. If you are going to buy in bulk, you’ll need some smaller containers to put the goods into when you divide them up amongst your friends. I like to store bulk food in glass mason jars for aesthetic purposes (which can be purchased at almost anywhere including big box stores like Walmart, your local hardware store in the canning section, etc.), but you can also upcycle old glass jars from peanut butter, jam, tomato sauce, salsa, etc. Check out this blog from Zero Waste Chef for tips on how to get labels off of upcycled jars!
  5. Get a scale (optional). To help divide up your goods especially if people in your bulk buyers club want to use different kinds of jars or want to divide things up into different quantities per person (e.g. a friend of yours who is single might want less food than your friend who has a family of four), a scale can be handy.
  6. Set a date for the refill party. Once all of the goods have arrived, pick a date for your refill party and have everyone bring their bottles. I recommend having a roll of masking tape around for an inexpensive labeling solution that comes off of jars without leaving residue or you can buy cute reusable chalkboard labels that you permanently affix to your jars or paint your jars with chalkboard paint. Tip: I love to have low-effort dinner parties with friends, so your refill party could be a good night to have a potluck and share a meal while dividing up the goods!

Buy Local

While you may not have grocery stores with a bulk section, you may have stores selling large quantities of goods or local businesses / farms willing to offer discounts for large orders.

  • If you live near a Costco or Sam’s Club, you may be able to find many products in larger quantities than you would buy as an individual and divide those up. Costco actually offers a lot of organic, sustainably grown products and is a great place to shop for your bulk buyers club.
  • If you live near a farm, you may be able to buy in bulk from your local farmer or at your local farmers market! For example, at my local farmers market, I can buy a 20lb bag of brown rice from Massa Organics for $35 or I can buy local honey in bulk from Marshall’s Honey for significantly less than a small jar (3lbs in bulk will run me $39 versus an 8oz / .5lb container for $10, saving me $21 for buying in bulk).
  • Microbreweries have popped up all over the nation. Purchase a keg (which can easily be returned and reused by the brewery) and some refillable growlers, then send your friends home with growlers of fresh beer.
  • Boutique coffee roasters are popping up all over the United States, from small towns to big cities. Contact your local roaster to see if they offer discounts on buying large quantities of beans in bulk.

Buy Online

Sometimes, you live somewhere that has very few options for purchasing affordable, organic products in bulk. When all else fails, you can turn to the internet! Here are a few companies offering large quantities of sustainable goods at a steep discount:

  • Nutiva – great for your at-home smoothie bar (chia seeds, hemp seeds, coconut oil, MCT oil, protein powder, etc.). Cost savings: a 10lb bag of chia seeds is currently on sale for $59.99 whereas a 12oz bag of chia seeds (.75lbs) is currently $8.99 (which is effectively $11.99/lb. If you bought the 10lb bag, you’d effectively save $6 per pound, a discount of 50% off for buying in bulk.
  • Arbor Teas – Arbor Teas have an excellent selection of premium, loose leaf tea at great prices, but what makes them really special is their commitment to shipping their teas in backyard compostable packaging. Cost savings vary, but if you were to buy 16 ounces of their jasmine green tea (equal to 200 servings), you’d spend $36.95 total or 18.5 cents per serving. If you compare this to Twinings, a well-known grocery store tea brand whose tea bags contain plastic (learn more), a box of 25 tea bags from Twinings costs $3.99 per box or 16 cents per serving. Thus, you can get infinitely higher quality tea buying loose leaf tea 2.5 cents per day. It is basically the difference between buying Coors Light and a high-end Belgian microbrew in quality for a few pennies per day.
  • Nuts.com – sells nuts, seeds, dried fruit, grains and beans in bulk. They offer both organic and conventional. If you buy 25lbs, you get 25% off the price per pound and this sometimes (but not always) brings down the price of organic to below smaller quantities of their conventional products.
  • Dr. Bronners – this super concentrated, all-purpose castile soap can be used as hand and body soap, or diluted for use in cleaning your home. Here are instructions on how to dilute it. You can get a 1-gallon container for $63.99, or 50 cents an ounce. It definitely cost you less than conventional soaps that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (learn more), and you’re supporting a certified B-corp who strive to use fair-trade products and organic materials in their soaps.
  • Shikai – Shikai offers shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion in 1-gallon containers. Their products are also free of harsh chemicals and work great! Cost savings: It costs $60 for a gallon container of their shampoo, which reduces the cost to refill a 12-oz bottle to $6. Yes, this is $2 more than a 12-oz bottle of Pantene Pro-V, but its far better for your body.
  • Bulk Apothecary –  Bulk Apothecary offers many different bulk spices, oils, essential oils and various ingredients for making your own soaps.
  • Who Gives a Crap – Looking for toilet paper with a purpose? Who Gives a Crap makes toilet paper and facial tissue made from bamboo or recycled paper that is free of inks, dyes and scents. The rolls are individually wrapped in paper and come in a single large cardboard box; no plastic is used in packaging it. At as low as $1 per roll, it is definitely more expensive than big-name brands like Charmin but unlike Charmin, they donate 50% of their profits to build toilets in developing nations.

Have you started a bulk buying club? Please add comments to share any tips you have on what has worked for you!

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