On our way back up the country, we decided to revisit Whole Foods Market, Cheltenham. This American company have recently opened some flagship stores in the UK of which Cheltenham is one. It is funky, good looking and challenging.We stumbled across this supermarket a few weeks ago quite by chance but didn’t have time for a proper look round.  I wanted to know more and this time I emailed ahead asking if it would be OK for me to take photos. Not only did they say yes, but Renata Rees, Marketing Team Leader, offered to meet me. An offer I eagerly accepted.

Loose Unpacked Food Wholefood featured

Do I sound excited? By a supermarket? Well yes I am. And the reason? This supermarket sells food loose and unpacked. I don’t just mean meat or vegetables (though that too) but nuts, spices and other dried commodities. The kind of stuff that usually comes swathed in plastic! They do a good range of rice, dried beans and pulses and more unusual stuff like blue popcorn, dried cherries and unroasted peanuts. You measure out what you need into the paper bags provided, weigh it, label it and job is done. Better still you can use your own reusable cotton bags,container or glass bottle (they do oil refills too! and even peanut butter!)

They call this the cook section because, as Renata explained, they want for people to be able to try out new stuff without making a huge cash commitment or ending up with a pile of food they just don’t like.You can purchase just enough for one meal and see if it works out. No more half full packets of cous cous sitting unused at the back of the cupboard.

It also means you can buy fresh, when you need it, for meals you don’t do that often. It can’t be just me that has an array of dusty spices gently going off in the deepest recesses of the rack. Spices I use – but only occasionally.

Being able to buy in small amounts and only what you need is great for people like us with limited space. It allows us to have a wider selection of food stuffs in our very tiny cupboards. We can have variety while still being able to move. We can also buy luxury ingredients like red rice in amounts we can afford, great for our reduced van life budget.

But surely it costs more to buy this way? After all they are a supermarket not a charity. As any plastic free person knows, the financial choices of being plastic free are at times bewildering and unfair. Why is it cheaper to buy 3 plastic packed peppers than one loose unpacked pepper? It is as though the supermarkets are forcing us to buy pre packaged, portion-controlled, more-than-we-want produce! What a ridiculous thought!

But not here, Renata pointed out that here buying loose costs the same as buying pre-packed – even if you buy a just a few grams. Great news for the small amount purchaser – another unfairly abused and penalised customer. Also good for helping fight food waste. Because it is so much cheaper to buy the big packet, shoppers are often persuaded into buying more than they really want or need.

Well then surely it costs more generally. No, the prices for loose produce are extremely competitive.

And if you don’t know your bulgar from your cous cous, the store has healthy eating info and cooking demos aimed at stripping the mystery from these strange grains and seeds.

Would like to see….

My only quibble was that though the range was eclectic, it suffered from some strange omissions. I would have loved to have seen some wholemeal pasta up there. What am I talking about I would have loved to have seen any sort of pasta up there.

Other loose foods include lettuce featured

A lot of unwrapped veg including naked cucumbers and lettuces.
Meat butchered in store by proper butchers
Cheese – real cheese
Eggs – yes eggs – you can buy them loose
A bakery to die at least go up a dress size for. And everything is baked in store by proper bakers not brought in and finished in store.

Loose olives
Tea and coffee – I can recommend the Breakfast Tea.
Bath salts

And they serve cooked food in the cafe and for take out that is also made in store by chefs

They also offer a wine refill service. You buy a glass litre bottles from them that you then refill, yourself from the large and lovely barrel of wine. At least that was how it used to be but the wine kept going off. Now a member of staff fills your bottle from a huge 15 litre wine box. Not quite plastic free abut still a refill is a refill and the plastic wasn’t in my bin. And there is still some green kudos to be gained it – was organic and cost considerably less to transport it this way.

Would like to see….

I do think that a couple of opportunities have been missed. An Ecover (or similar) refill stand for cleaning products would be nice. But what I would really love to see is a refill milk machine! One of these. They say no customer has ever asked for one! If you are in the area….


They provide paper bags for the dry products and the cutlery used in the deli is compostable. However the packaging for the meat and fish is plastic so you will have to take your own compostable and reusable bags.

Would like to see….

How fantastic if they were to offer compostable packaging for meat and fish.

And wouldn’t it be great if they were to sell reusable cotton bags in the loose food section.

For the rest of the store there was an awful lot of stuff packed in disposable plastic ….but lets not be too picky.

Waste disposal

Talking of rubbish, there comes a time in every plastic boycotter life when they look beyond their own bin and start to worry about packaging in the supply chain. This store is trying to manage all its trash in a sustainable way. Only 20 to 30 percent of their waste goes to landfill the rest is recycled and to a lesser extent but when ever possible reused. For example the cardboard boxes the eggs come in are returned to be refilled!

They run waste days to raise awareness days in store for the benefit of both the staff and customers.

Because they have in store chefs, produce that is getting near its sell by date can be used in the kitchens. Surplus food is given to charity. 6 mornings a week Trinity church use it to help feed the vulnerable.

They will also give you the coffee grounds from the cafe to use as compost.

Policies  cow featured

Now of course your average plastic-refusing hipster, in a store with whole foods in the title, tends to care about a whole range of issues so you will be pleased to know that there are shop policies on everything including

To name a few. Check out the website for the full list.


Again, from a plastic perspective, they acknowledge the potential risk of BPA (considered by many to be a hormone disruptor) found in certain types of plastic. They are developing a fairly stringent response which is well documented on their website to quote To date, we have done more than any other U.S. retailer to inform our customers and take action on the issue. We continue to closely examine the packaging materials used in our stores, and we will continue to search for the safest and most functional packaging materials for our stores. You can find out more from their website.

Local Produce

They are also committed to local producers and recently had a food festival featuring 30 different farmers. They not only label their produce by country of origin but whether it was actually grown locally. Nice touch.


I could write a lot more on this subject and I really am not doing justice to Renatas wonderfully informative tour but I don’t want to go too far off subject or make you think I am in receipt of payment. But I am genuinely impressed with this store and their attempts to tackle some of the issues surrounding food production, packaging and marketing. Because whatever you think of supermarkets, they have a hugely important role to play in our society so it is important that they play it well.


They have stores in London, Cheltenham and Glasgow

I have visited and reviewed these stores 

Would like to see…. one in Huddersfield.

Other supermarkets take some of these ideas on board.


9 thoughts on “If we have to have supermarkets …… Whole foods – a case study

  1. These is a big loose cheese cut to order section in the speciality department with a wonderful delection call their!!

  2. I totally agree with you. I’ve been doing a lot of my shopping at Wholefoods’ since started my plastic reduced life. I’m also missing pasta in bulk and that wonderful refill milk machine. Having access to raw milk would also enable us to make homemade cream and mozzarella. They don’t sell cheese loose either. They told me that it only comes wrapped in foil which is a shame as they have quite a selection of cheese. Would be lovely to get some loose! However I managed to get mozzarella nearly plastic free the other day (it only came with a wee plastic cord). But last time I went there, they didn’t have it anymore. But the staff are usually very friendly and helpful there. 🙂

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