Introducing OxUnBoxed: a plastic-free alternative to supermarkets

Regular frequenters of the Covered Market may have noticed the appearance of an intriguing new establishment during Michaelmas term: OxUnBoxed. An organic refill shop who’s team’s mission is: “We believe quality, eco-friendly products should be affordable for all.” Managed by four enthusiastic current and former Oxford students named Ange, Célian, Gwendy and Yannis, the shop has big aspirations for its future. 

The history of OxUnBoxed is one marked by a number of starts and stops. Created over a decade ago, students at the University of Oxford launched OxUnBoxed in response to concerns over excessive food and plastic waste. Beginning as intermittent pop-up shops in colleges, it took a more permanent form in 2019, opening its doors on Little Clarendon Street, where it shared a space with the student volunteering charity Oxford Hub. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the pandemic soon forced Oxford Hub’s closure, inevitably leading to OxUnBoxed’s own closure. Ange recalls that Yannis, who had been a student volunteer there at the time, was entrusted with all the shelves and materials, which he stored either in a storage unit or in friends’ houses. It wasn’t until last year that the four of them reunited to once again revive OxUnBoxed.

In their quest for a new location, they approached the Covered Market and quickly found OxUnBoxed a new home opposite The Cake Shop and Brown’s Cafe, in the last avenue of the market. For those unfamiliar with the refill shopping process, a volunteer is always around to assist, but Ange insists, “It is really straightforward.” If you don’t bring your own container, you are invited to use one of their free pre-washed, pre-weighed donated containers and jars. The store offers a wide range of organic, vegan items including kitchen staples like pasta and rice, as well as other items such as various nuts and flour. They also stock vegan, cruelty-free laundry detergents and washing-up liquids sourced from the Oxford refill enterprise SESI. Once your containers are full, you pay at the counter according to weight. OxUnBoxed is committed to making its stock as cheap as possible, and Ange joked that spices from conventional supermarkets “are a scam”. For instance, while Tesco’s 27g jar of rosemary costs £1, the same quantity at OxUnBoxed would only come to 40p. 

Customers appear to be enjoying OxUnBoxed’s services. On Google reviews, Rosie Croysdale declares “I love this place!”, and Adam Burke adds “Amazing variety of products, great prices and really friendly staff!”. Abraham Nash also comments “It’s a fantastic spot for regular shopping without the clutter of packaging to stock up on essentials.”

However, as a fledgling business, OxUnBoxed faces its share of challenges. Unlike other shops in the Covered Market which benefit from tourism, OxUnBoxed caters to and relies on the local community. The central location of the market becomes a double-edged sword, as Ange explains, not many locals venture into the market “because they perceive it to be a rather touristy environment.” As they remain committed to affordability, OxUnBoxed’s low profit margins make them dependent on high sales volumes to cover business expenses such as rent. While the Oxford City Council and The Covered Market have been supportive – they helped them negotiate a lower rent – increasing visibility remains the OxUnBoxed team’s main focus. 

When asked about future aspirations for OxUnBoxed, the team emphasised their ambition to become a registered charity. This would allow them to apply for grants and exempt them from the business rates they are currently paying. To achieve this, diversifying the types of activities that they host will be key, a challenge they eagerly embrace. Their vision involves turning the shop into a thriving community space, having already hosted events such as a clothing repair workshop and a party in partnership with the Oxford DJ collective Soul Plaza. Recognising the challenge of finding venues for society events, they would like to encourage students to utilise OxUnBoxed’s space. In addition to this, in the future they hope to collaborate with JCR and MCRs, potentially becoming their laundry detergent refill supplier.

So, what can Oxford students do to support its mission? Célian and Ange emphasised three main things: visit the shop, tell your friends, and contribute by donating your empty jars and containers or sharing any product requests you may have. Should you like to donate your time, OxUnBoxed is always looking to broaden its volunteer team.