Zero-waste retailer Hive sells sustainability to Malaysia’s cost-conscious consumers

Screenshot of Malaysia-based zero-waste retailer The Hive's websiteScreenshot of Malaysia-based zero-waste retailer The Hive's website

Claire Sancelot, founder of zero-waste grocer The HIVE, may have been tilting at electricity-generating windmills when she launched her start-up in Kuala Lumpur. But after a rocky start in early 2016 — just months after Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal caused an economic slowdown and as the business suffered six-month period with no customers — The Hive now has five large shops and four small shops in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, as well as placing products in supermarkets.

“It’s very hard to be in sustainability and to work in a business, because our products are obviously are more expensive, mainly for the food. Organic food by definition is going to be more expensive than industrial food,” she said at the H.E.R. Entrepreneur Asia Summit in Singapore on 2 October.

“Our markets are still developing countries, so our customers are very, very cost sensitive,” she said.

The HIVE offers products including compost-able bamboo toothbrushes and metal drinking straws, as well as bulk shopping of dry goods offered in reusable containers.

Sancelot credited younger generations’ activism on the environment.

“We are not suicidal. We want to stay on this planet,” she said. Gen Z and millennial “customers are very sensitive to sustainability. For them, it’s their planet, their future depends on it.”

She also pointed to the importance of product pricing to selling sustainability: “You have at the same price a bamboo toothbrush or a plastic toothbrush; if it’s the same price, you’re going to go for the bamboo toothbrush. So that’s what we’re trying to do at The Hive.”

Sancelot has also found other ways to cut costs to keep prices in check, such as asking customers to bring in their paper bags and jars.

“We never buy packaging,” she said.

The Hive has also used sustainability-related collections to drive foot traffic to the stores, even if they don’t bring in revenue, she said. The Hive has collected prescription eye-glasses to send to impoverished emerging-market Myanmar as well as collecting e-waste and clothing, she said.

While The Hive has an online store, Sancelot said her start-up may contradict the currently accepted online-first approach to retail.

“People still love to have the touch and feel of the brick and mortar and people still love to talk to shop managers” and feel recognized, she said. “We are pushing for the slow life and people want it. It’s not always better, faster, cheaper.”

The Hive is aiming to enter Singapore’s market soon.

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