Ever Wonder What a Supermarket Looks Like in the Nude?

Barbara Balfour

Valerie Leloup likes her food naked.

At least that’s what it says on her reusable tote bag, which features the logo of her zero-waste shop, Nu Grocery, opening in Ottawa, Canada, this August.

It’s a fitting play on words. In French, “nu” means “naked” and because it’s pronounced “new,” Leloup found the name particularly appropriate, since what she’s offering is a novel way to shop for groceries: no plastic or single-use packaging, everything sold bare and in bulk, and nothing going to waste.

The eco-friendly store follows in the footsteps of similar zero-waste endeavors in Europe, and is responding to Canadian consumers’ growing awareness of not only what we buy, but how we shop. Those who follow the zero-waste lifestyle adhere to the 5 Rs: reduce consumption; refuse (saying “no” to items that don’t biodegrade, or aren’t essential); re-use (staying away from single-use products); recycle (but only if you can’t refuse, reduce, or re-use it); and rot (using waste for compost).

Before moving to Ottawa, Leloup grew up in France and Germany, where she says the culture is well ahead of North America in terms of environmental responsibility.  “Europeans are more frugal and consume less. When you have smaller living spaces, you refuse things out of necessity.”

But Leloup adopted the zero-waste lifestyle herself only 18 months ago, after her mother gave her the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, a pioneering voice in the sustainable living movement.

“I had never heard of [Johnson] and started reading it very reluctantly. How interesting could a 300-page book on reducing your waste possibly be? Well, I couldn’t put it down and read the whole thing in a day,” says Leloup, who, ironically, was previously a packaging buyer for Danone (now DanoneWave, a food and beverage multinational best known for yogurt and bottled water).

“The overarching message was about redefining your lifestyle and asking yourself what is really important. The rat race to have more doesn’t make you happy. So you ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this?’ If so, how can I satisfy the need in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment?”

After reading the book, Leloup wholeheartedly threw herself into going waste-free, but quickly found it was unsustainable for a single working mother.

“It can get quite complicated, depending on what kind of shopper you are. You really need to plan your purchases and make sure you have your paper bags and glass jars with you,” says Leloup.
But that was only the start of her problems. Because the shops where she could buy the items she needed in bulk were scattered all over town, Leloup would have at least six or seven stops on her grocery run. At each one, store staff would have to weigh her reusable containers, and Leloup frequently had to wait for an employee to become available and then she’d explain to them exactly how that process worked. It became tedious quickly.
“People who are the hardcore zero wasters end up doing a lot themselves,” Leloup says. “They’ll make their own hummus, pesto, even toothpaste and deodorant. That’s not realistic for most of us.”

Enter Nu Grocery. The 1,400-square-foot packaging-free mecca offers a range of items—from beauty and cleaning products to produce, condiments, and prepared foods—all in bulk. Customers are encouraged to bring their own containers, although cotton bags and glass jars are also available for purchase.

The store includes plenty of other thoughtful touches. Bins of bulk foods are placed at countertop level, away from children’s wandering hands. There’s a weighing station for containers right near the entrance, a wall of faucets for shampoos and cleaning products, and kombucha on tap.

To minimize produce waste, a local chef comes in every night to collect overripe fruits and vegetables and process them into items that will be available the next day in the prepared food section.

And for those who can’t make it into the store, Leloup opened an online outpost of Nu in May, where orders have been pouring in from across Canada for zero-waste accessories like compostable sponges and bamboo toothbrushes.

For Leloup, Nu is much more than just a business: it’s a platform for raising awareness and building a community around waste prevention. Last April, she invited Johnson to speak in Ottawa to an audience of 350 people. The event sold out three weeks early; clearly, she says, Ottawa has been ready for this for a long time.

It may be unexpected for a shop owner to be so fiercely anti-materialistic, but Leloup’s entire mission boils down to encouraging people to enjoy life more through consuming less. When you’re devoted to living waste-free, “You suddenly realize what makes you happy is not the latest gadget or a fancy car,” she says. “What makes you happy is life experiences.”