In the air, there’s a strong smell of peppermint and essential oils. On wooden shelves surrounded by greenery sit jars of assorted liquid, cardboard containers of detergent and chunks of colorful soap — these are the shelves of Earth Sage, Winston-Salem’s first refill and low-waste store.
In February 2021, Ohio native Rachel Drake opened Earth Sage in downtown Winston-Salem — eight years after moving to the area.
The vision of Earth Sage is to cut municipal solid waste — objects such as bottles, cardboard, textiles and plastics that we use to carry our detergent or soap. According to a 2018 EPA report on municipal solid waste, “The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) or 4.9 pounds per person per day.”
Drake took an interest in sustainable practices after being gifted a Swedish dishcloth, made of a plant-based and compostable material that softens when wet and hardens when dry — offering a multipurpose tool for cleaning.
Her curiosity toward low-waste practices grew in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when she became more conscious of the amount of trash she produced and consumed as a single person.
“This [waste] is not good for the environment. This is not sustainable,” Drake said of her own consumption. “I was sitting in meditation one day, and I had a vision of a shop like this [Earth Sage]. I could see it and feel it and hear it, and it just felt really good. And I thought ‘Wow, I think I could do something like that, I think I could build something like that for our community.’”
Drake’s vision came to fruition in March and April 2020 after she found a space on Trade Street and began renovations.
Earth Sage is divided into multiple sections — laundry, kitchen, cleaning, beauty and health are all broken down into specific shelves and spaces within the store.
In beauty and health, she sells products like body wash, toothpaste tablets, refillable deodorant and shampoo/conditioner bars. In laundry and kitchen, Earth Sage supplies laundry concentrates, organic stain removers and plastic-free dishwasher pods.
“When I thought of the design of the shop, I pictured a household — ‘What are the different compartments within the house, and what products do we typically use in there?’’’ Drake said of her initial thought process behind the store’s design.
At Earth Sage, the refill process works in four steps. First, shoppers can bring their own reusable container to be filled. Most containers are acceptable to be filled — including glass bottles or old detergent containers. If you don’t have a container, Earth Sage provides free, donated jars and sells reusable glass containers for purchase.
Earth Sage partners with Fill-Joy, which works as a scaling system to calculate the product weight.
After grabbing a container, customers grab the Fill-Joy microchip tag, click it to the tablet on the side, put the tag on the container and weigh the container on the scale. Then, customers can fill the bottle with the product they need. At checkout, the weight of the container will be calculated and subtracted from the item weight in order to calculate the final price.
“We’re conditioned as consumers to fill up a cup to whatever it says,” Drake explains. “[At Earth Sage] you don’t have to do that anymore, which is really nice — a little goes a long way.”
Earth Sage not only emphasizes recycling but also sells products that are free of parabens and sulfates, as well as organic products sourced from companies like Root and Splendor, Oneka and Humble Suds.
For those curious about adapting to a low-waste lifestyle, Drake recommends starting small by incorporating one thing in the shop that they’re most excited to use, then going from there.
“I think when we look at how we’re set up as an economy or we look at what’s happening with climate change…it’s very easy to think ‘it’s too big for me to handle as an individual. What am I going to do to actually contribute and make a difference?’”she said.
Drake advocates for people to start their sustainability journey small by using reusable bags, asking for no plastic silverware, being mindful of water waste and recycling.
“I think we’re so consumer-driven,” Drake said. “Your money makes a difference, and your money talks on behalf of you. Where you’re putting your money shows [your values] in a way that you may not see the effects of, but it shows what you care about.”
Drake envisions people becoming more considerate of the environment not through shaming but through a lens of sharing and teaching. She has seen the positive effects of this tactic, especially through her family and friends interacting with the shop.
“Just doing sustainability, and it catches on… like with my family,” Drake said. “When I told them about the shop and what I wanted to do, they said ‘don’t do that,’ but now that I have the shop, and they see all the different things that they could do. Every time they come down, they’re like, ‘oh, I want this!’ I think just by natural osmosis, people catch on and get excited about it [low waste].”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no one definition for the term “zero waste,” but each governing body or company asserts their own definition of low waste.
Cities like Asheville, N.C. have defined low waste as “a goal to redesign resource life cycles so that materials are reused and waste is minimal. Discarded materials become resources that are recycled back into nature or to the marketplace to be reused again.”
The Zero Waste Alliance defines zero waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products, packaging and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
Earth Sage focuses on incorporating both of these definitions — with emphasis on the reusing and conserving of waste — starting with the refill process and selling reusable/non-plastic products.In the future, Earth Sage plans to host events like plant, book and clothing swaps to get people more connected with the store and to learn more about switching to a sustainable lifestyle. If you’re interested in learning more about how to maintain a sustainable lifestyle, connect with Earth Sage or visit them downtown at 608-A Trade St. NW, Winston-Salem, NC 27101.