In this series we look at China-based entrepreneurs, the businesses they have developed and how they have coped with recent obstacles created by the pandemic. Carrie Yu, founder of Beijing-based zero waste social enterprise The Bulk House, recounts her journey
I first became interested in a zero-waste lifestyle in the summer of 2016 when I came across a video by Bea Johnson, author of the book Zero Waste Home. One of the reasons I was viewing this kind of information in the first place was that in early 2016 I was moving apartments. I was in my tiny bedroom looking at clothes that still had tags on, books that I had never read, and mountains of other stuff… all self-imposed drains on our freedom and the environment.
The Bulk House is a social enterprise, registered at the start of 2017. At the time of starting it, there was very little mention of official recycling going on in Beijing, let alone the concept of zero waste. I saw the piles of waste building up in my old housing community and I realised that I was part of the problem and I was adding to that pile every day.
When we began, the overall idea was to promote the concept of zero waste and make it accessible and convenient for all. How to do this was the challenge. We put on events and workshops, made reusable products, created zero waste group chats, created content, did interviews, went on TV, took part in documentaries, and even tried our hand at consulting for companies. The idea is to be a one-stop-shop for all things zero waste while also promoting the philosophy behind it.
The Bulk House has grown from selling one reusable metal straw to 100s of zero waste products. We went from a tiny store to our Beiluoguxiang location, which is about four times the size of our original store with online customers from across China. However, the real growth has been our knowledge of the concept of zero waste and the number of people we have been able to pass that on to.
The true philosophy of zero waste involves multiple Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle and rot. The second R, reduce, is perhaps the most important and is the essential idea of zero waste. We want more people to get into the zero-waste lifestyle, but we don’t want people to own zero waste items that they don’t need and so won’t use. I would encourage FOCUS readers to go to our WeChat Account at TheBulkHouse_China or our Weibo @thebulkhouse to see what we talk about, how we think, questions we’ve answered over the years, interviews we have done, and see the products we sell and why we sell. From the products, you can understand why they are made from certain materials, why they have little to no packaging, and why they have a very minimalist design.
The challenge for us has always been the ability to focus. There are a million and one ways to solve environmental problems, and it seems very obvious looking back that the way we are now doing it is the one that is suitable for me, but it wasn’t always that cut and dry. It took us some time to realise the cliché of “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”
Now, we do one big thing at a time and focus on that for a long time until it is running smoothly. Right now, that big thing is our physical store in Beijing. We also have two online stores on Taobao and Weidian (on WeChat). Both of these are running quite well and we will come back to those and improve them once we have spent some more time on improving our offline store.
Another challenge has been hiring. From our past mistakes, we have now realised that the main attribute to take into consideration when hiring is attitude. We don’t really care about your CV or which university you went to; hire based on attitude and you will place yourself in a much better position to succeed as a team. If you hire someone and they make a mistake but have a good attitude and are willing to learn and improve, then praise that person and look after them in your company. If they have a bad attitude, ask them to leave; if you are going into an office/store five to seven days a week you don’t want a negative atmosphere polluting all the actual problems you face every day.
When we first started, people called us the “recycling guys,” and we had to educate them that “yes, recycling is part of zero waste, but it is a long way down the line of zero waste concepts.” There have been many developments since then. Garbage classification has now been implemented, for example, and I think the food bins are working really well. We just need to stop a few bad apples (pun intended) from dropping their plastic waste into the food bins, thus making it even more difficult for the hard-working men and women whose jobs it is to ensure those resources get sent to the correct places each day.
Like everyone, we lost lots of business in the first few months of the pandemic, including months and months of paid events all being cancelled. However, you aren’t an entrepreneur if you can’t pivot and make the best of a bad situation. We used the time to focus on developing better products and released a new zero-waste bathroom brand called Lagom Planet. Lagom is a Swedish word/philosophy that means “Not too much, not too little, just right,” which seemed perfect for what we are trying to promote.
If I could give future China entrepreneurs one piece of advice, it would be to solve actual problems. Don’t come up with an idea and then make up a problem that your money-making idea will solve.