Since the early days of the pandemic, shopping for essentials has sometimes been an experience fraught with tension and worry. Navigating these concerns is what led my neighbour to subscribe to Mama Earth Organics. Every other week, a reusable box filled with Ontario produce lands on her doorstep, which these days includes a lot of root vegetables and apples. The subscription has given her an appreciation of what it really means to eat locally, as well as a reason to cook with foods she would normally bypass in the vegetable aisle of our downtown Toronto supermarket.
As the pandemic forced all of us to stay home last March, much of our lives went virtual, including our shopping habits. When we couldn’t go to the mall, subscription delivery services often took its place, with niche products ranging from teabags to toothbrushes arriving regularly at our doorsteps.
But unlike the product sampler boxes of yore, these next-generation subscription services are more than just an excuse to send ourselves mail. Sustainability-led subscription deliveries offer an opportunity for more mindful decision-making, and the chance to consume responsibly. Indeed, consuming sustainably is a habit that’s increasingly top of mind for Canadian shoppers, with 61 per cent saying that it’s important that food products are produced following sustainable practices, according to a recent study by research firm BrandSpark International.
Subscription services now include everything from digital streaming platforms such as Netflix, to themed boxes for everyone from candy enthusiasts to yoga lovers, to common household products such as razor blades. A recent survey of American consumers by online coupon-code search engine Coupon Follow found that 20 per cent of respondents had ordered a subscription box during the pandemic.
According to Amy Konary, chair of the Subscribed Institute at subscription-management company Zuora, the pandemic accelerated the subscription services market in two main ways: It forced companies whose value had been disrupted to pivot online (she mentions the example of gyms now offering online workouts), and it offered up a captive audience of consumers stuck at home. “If I think about what I’ve enjoyed over the last year, most of them have been subscription services,” she says, pointing to the shared experience that comes with joining a community of subscribers.
One such experience is Toronto floral delivery service 2Peonies, which sends subscribers a vase to reuse with each delivery of its minimalist bouquets. “People were locked inside, wanting to elevate their surroundings and not being able to access flowers as easily,” says founder Julia Shelton, who launched her company in June. While reusing the same vase with each delivery, the 2Peonies community can follow Shelton on Instagram to see how she arranges the blooms, and will often share photos of how they’ve styled the flowers in their homes.
Beyond offering a sense of community, Konary thinks the delivery model stands to make the most impact when it gives consumers an easy way to make responsible choices that lessen their environmental impact through waste reduction and participation in the circular economy. It’s a departure from the practice of sending out subscriptions of product samples that may or may not be used, and helps shoppers streamline their purchases to the goods that they do need.
The early days of the pandemic offered a bizarre reminder that one item most of us are in constant need of is toilet paper, which is a $1.45-billion market in Canada. For London-based writer Aja Barber, whose work focuses on the intersections between sustainability and the fashion landscape, her subscription to B Corp-certified toilet paper company Who Gives a Crap helped her weather some uncertain times.
“We were subscribers before the pandemic, but I’ve never felt so sure of a decision as I did when the toilet-paper wars started,” she says, adding that having a reliable supply encouraged some neighbourly behaviour. “I wrote a note letting the others in our building know that if they were struggling with [finding] toilet paper, we had a roll to spare.”
PlantPaper, a subscription to tree-free toilet paper made of FSC-certified bamboo, was started after its founders realized that much of North America’s household toilet paper is made using trees from the boreal forest. “It’s a pretty perverse use of a spectacular and irreplaceable natural resource,” co-founder Lee Reitelman says.
When launching in 2018, the company chose to go the online subscription route versus selling in stores because it offers greater consumer engagement than the average time someone spends in the household-paper aisle. “There’s a lot of activation energy required to get somebody to make that switch the first time,” Reitelman says. Having the next package arrive at your doorstep when needed means subscribers never have to think about shopping for toilet paper again.
“Once they’ve made that better decision, you want to make it as easy for them to continue to make that decision in perpetuity,” Reitelman says. Plus, given the product’s larger sheets, smaller rolls and three-ply consistency, PlantPaper estimates that subscribers use up to 50 per cent less toilet paper over a year than they did with conventional versions – while saving as much as 20 per cent of their annual spend.
The bathroom is a prime destination for plastic – reducing that excess waste gives Hannah Christian, founder of B.C.-based natural body-care company Habitat, a sense of purpose. “Our goal right now is to basically turn your entire bathroom plastic-free,” Christian says. Offering essentials such as deodorant, hair-care bars and lip balm, Habitat essentially does all of the work in establishing – and maintaining – a waste-free wellness routine.
“You’ve got your first bundle – it should last you a few months, and then you get your next bundle. It just automatically comes in the mail for you, so you don’t have to worry about going to the grocery store or the drugstore and buying the plastic-filled products,” she says, adding that Habitat subscriptions can be paused any time without penalty.
At Toronto beverage company Lark, the impetus for creating a closed-loop bottled drink service was to help reduce the amount of glass going straight to landfill. After launching last March as a supplier for restaurants and hotels, Lark founder Michelle Donnelly quickly pivoted to a consumer-based delivery service that included subscriptions to bottles of spring water, floral-flavoured water, oat milk, ginger ale and wine.
There’s a $44 fee for subscribers who don’t return their bottles and crate, which Donnelly says has only happened three times over the course of some 40,000 bottles. The convenience, plus the taste, is what keeps people coming back for more. “People talk mostly about the flavour profile,” Donnelly says. “They [also] really love the bottle – it looks great in their kitchen. It’s a nice experience when you’re stuck inside all the time.”
Subscriptions offer a way to rethink our consumption patterns while streamlining for convenience and ease. It’s also a mindful approach that can help to reduce household waste. As for my neighbour, she hasn’t set foot in a supermarket in months – and plans to continue her produce delivery post-pandemic.
Ten subscription services that could simplify your life
Better Basics packages their all-natural hand soaps, dish soap and cleaning spray in refillable paper jugs that are then sent to your home on a schedule of your choosing.
To keep your electric toothbrush fresh, oral-care brand Bruush will ship you three replacement heads every six months.
In the CB Wine Program, members can subscribe to a monthly wine delivery or to the quarterly reserve option, a selection of vintage and library wines.
Join the Tea Tasting Club to receive four boxes annually filled with new and exclusive blends.
This Calgary-based company sends weekly plant-based meals and snacks to members of its Fresh Club.
General Assembly Pizza
Offering the world’s first pizza subscription service, Toronto’s General Assembly will deliver four, six, eight or 10 frozen pizzas to your door every four weeks.
Subscribers can receive Habitat’s vegan, plastic-free hair-care bars, soaps, lip balms and deodorants as a bundle or individually.
Lark delivers bottled Ontario spring water and other beverages every week, two weeks or monthly to subscribers in the Greater Toronto Area.
Currently shipping to Ontario residents, PlantPaper delivers a 100-per-cent recycled, recyclable and compostable box filled with enough rolls of bamboo TP for your household.
This Toronto-based floral service replenishes a vase that’s included on the first delivery with a tastefully minimal bouquet of fresh blooms every two weeks.
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