Whitecourt’s zero-waste store, OKO Shop & Refillery

·4 min read

In late December 2019, Brandy Fleming watched many Netflix documentaries, not realizing that one of those selections would lead her down a brand new path "I watched a recycling one that overviewed the number of plastics that are not recyclable in a lot of areas and what happens to our plastic when we put it in our blue bags for pick up."

She said the documentary was based in the United States but discovered that Canada's recycling wasn't much different. "A lot of the same stuff was happening in Canada, and we are sending it overseas. They are drowning in our plastic because we are consuming it and recycling it faster than they can process it."

She felt there had to be another way of consuming products without the need for plastic. "If I wanted to make a switch, I would have to be willing to drive to d

owntown Edmonton to shop." After talking with friends and hearing interest, she decided to open a business that enabled eco-shopping alternatives to plastic-wrapped goods. A zero-waste option.

Following the loss of a daughter at nine days old due to a fatal condition, Fleming was on parental leave to grieve. "I didn't have a job to go back to at the time because I was a dental assistant, and I didn't know if I was ready for a full-time position. Then, COVID happened. The lockdown caused me to dive further into this. I had all the time I needed to research and listen to podcasts. I self-taught myself pretty much everything I know about business."

Fleming said she initially looked into a mobile business in a holiday trailer or a bus but ended up using her van. "Last September, at the beginning of the month, things were getting cold and rainy, and I couldn't do the pop-up anymore. My husband encouraged me to find a place to set up."

OKO Shop & Refillery has been open for nearly a year, located at 4723 50th Avenue Business Plaza #2. "My husband found the listing for this office space, and I fell in love with all the windows in here. It's street-facing, and the lighting is perfect. It feels like the right fit," smiled Fleming.

Upon entry to the space, shoppers will see a wide assortment of non-packaged products and various things with bottles that can be reused or refilled. The store's centre is an island of big bottles filled with shampoos and conditioners that buyers can use to refill their jars or grab one of the free sanitized jars available. Bulk refills are available for hand soap, dish soap, laundry soap, and multipurpose cleaners. "The shampoo and conditioner bars we have are such good quality. You don't have to buy a bottle of shampoo; you can grab a bar instead!"

The Edmonton-based company, Jack59 that makes the bars is just one of the local offerings she has in store. "I try to find products within Alberta, and if not then within Canada, and then it spreads from there. I have a tiered approach to how I bring my products in," explained Fleming. She also focuses on items that are better for the earth and better for the body. "All of the products that I source out have simpler, more natural ingredients. The scents for a lot of the products are from essential oils. It's cutting out the nasty stuff."

The name OKO is a personal touch from her family's lineage. "It's the German word for ECO. My grandpa came over from the war in Germany, so it was a little tribute to him. Of course, he did come here to get away from that life, which is why I also pronounce it more English when I say it. People say it different ways, and so do I," she chuckled.

A significant difference between OKO Shop & Refillery and other stores is how she displays her pricing. "I have a price list on my wall like a menu. Some items are priced individually, and some are written on the boxes. It gets us away from having to label every single thing." For items sold without packaging, displayed in jars, shoppers can use tongs and place items in a paper bag. "There's no plastic," she said.

Her beeswax wraps are a great sustainable product. "They aren't just for covering half a fruit or a bowl or plate. You can also cover a casserole dish as we have bigger sizes." Fleming said the support she receives from the community is great. Along with her young daughters, who often help mom in store, Fleming said she loves getting to spread the word about easy ways to reduce waste.

Check out OKO Shop & Refillery Tuesdays-Fridays from 11 am to 5:30 pm. Saturdays vary, so shoppers are encouraged to follow the shop's social media accounts and website, www.okoshoprefillery.ca.

Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press

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