Everything Old is New

“Everything old is new again,” is a phrase people of older generations may say when a seemingly new product or movement comes along. For the past few weeks, Local Greens has touted the benefits of shopping local, and highlighted some sustainable shops throughout our delivery areas. Package-free, zero-waste and conscious shopping are quite trendy practices at the moment, but how inventive and original is this new mode of shopping? Making purchases where you bring your own packaging, only buy what you need, and waste nothing is both the newest and oldest way to live. It’s how people shopped for the majority of the 20th century and likely all eras before that. This type of purchasing is probably familiar to many of our grandparents’ generation, and it’s our modern, plastic-wrapped and individually portioned consumption that has deviated away from the norm. Forget the catchy phrases and take a look back at shopping.

London is full of street markets. Even with a two-meter cordon around one stall to the next, streets are still buzzing with traders, makers and craftspeople bring their wares to your local market.  However, markets used to be so much more than weekend destinations for a tasty brunch or Instagramable houseplant. Markets were how people shopped and socialised. Many famous trading spots date back to Roman times and are still used today. Remains of the Forum are present in Lime Street in the city, at the edge of Leadenhall Market, where olive oil was once the traded commodity. As London developed and gained power as a port, Billingsgate became the natural trading spot for fish, coal and other goods arriving by sea. Cheapside was the first, thriving market in what was then central London, established in the 12th century as the Westfield supercentre of its day. The street’s name is derived from ‘ceap,’ the Saxon word for market. The establishment of guilds solidified London’s street markets as regulated enterprises with specific areas for each trade. Walking around the city today, you can still see what shoppers of the Middle Ages would have purchased on Poultry, Bread Street, Milk Street, Oat Lane and more.

If you weren’t a city dweller in centuries gone by, you likely produced what you needed yourself, or had trade relationships with your neighbours who made what you didn’t. Fast-forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, and rural communities began to have general stores to fulfil their every need. In the general store, you could find staple food products, household supplies and hardware needs all under one roof.  As the link between community and shop was vital and mutually dependent, general stores were the original pioneers in custom orders and customer satisfaction, often adjusting their products based on community needs, feedback and preferences.  These shops were ubiquitous to nearly every culture or civilization. A ‘general store’ can be found still standing across the US, Australia and Canada, while colmado, bakal, tapir, sekatavarakauppa, bodeguita and village shop are some examples of what others across the world call their local retailer.

In the not too distant 20th century, people went to the grocery store, the market or straight to the farmer for their goods. Grains could be found sold from giant barrels and weighted out for each customer’s order; fruit and veg came from the farm in wooden crates, and milk was dispensed straight from a churn. It was not until the propagation of plastic as a cheap, reliable and versatile packaging and preservative did the time tested methods of shopping begin to change. Items didn’t have to be fresh and sold quickly if they could be kept longer.  The shop could portion out goods in advance and the customer had to work with those quantities rather than buying what was needed. Many other factors, such as urbanisation, convenience, capitalism and an array of others, have changed the way we shop, consume and interact with our local suppliers and merchants. The recent appearance of package-free shopping is completing the circle on our habits and taking us back to how our forefathers went about it. What’s old is now billed as better for the environment, sustainable and producing less waste, which is exactly how people used to shop and live. Perhaps to reverse climate change, 21st century health woes and the myriad modern ailments, we need to go back our roots and shop like it’s 1920.

When you are next in Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Borough or the other markets that are now tourist destinations, remember that you are visiting London’s original package-free, zero-waste centres. Back when there was no plastic packaging, and no other option for shopping, the local market or general store was the community lifeline for food and all goods. Honour that past by not just supporting your neighbourhood’s new package-free shop, but bring your own bag and head to your local market.

Here’s are a few resources to find a market near you: