skip to content



Something like this event, it may be small, just a drop in the ocean, but at the end of the day all those drops are going to make a difference

The Environment Networks at Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press have recently set up a regular series of Zero Waste Pop-Up Markets to give their staff the opportunity to shop more sustainably.

Over 400 people attended the first event in October and vendors so far have included Lush, Prospects Trust, BeeBee Wraps, Full Circle and Cam Home & Garden. Products on offer range from fresh fruit and veg and refillable food staples, to zero-waste personal care items and refillable household cleaning products. Jess Haskell met with one of the project leads, Ellen Mackay from Cambridge Assessment, to find out a bit more about the events and to ask her advice for anyone looking to run something similar.

Hi Ellen, could you tell us a bit about yourself and why you started the Zero Waste Pop-Up Markets?

Sure! So my family and I are pretty green - the local grocer saves his leftover cabbage leaves for our chickens and we’ve been using refillable eco-friendly detergent for so long that all the labels have worn off. We also have an allotment and enjoy making our own wine and foraging. It wasn’t until I watched the BBC’s War On Plastic programme however, that my desire to tackle the plastic problem really took off. The programme made me drastically re-evaluate the things you just buy on autopilot. We were reducing, reusing and recycling as a household but we needed to shift the balance from recycling to reuse and reduce. I started researching how we could replace some of our single-use plastic, things like shampoo and conditioner bottles, and suddenly realised how many places there are in Cambridge to help you buy sustainably if you know where to look. Many of my colleagues don’t live locally to Cambridge though, so it seemed like a good idea to bring these vendors to a site with over 3,000 staff.

How did you turn your idea into a reality?

Cambridge Assessment are lucky enough to have an Environment Committee which is a staff-based forum where we can raise ideas for the business to take forward as well as comment on initiatives already in place. After I raised the idea at a meeting, the three co-chairs of this Committee, alongside a number of dedicated staff from both Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press, put our heads together to start planning the markets. We were very much starting from scratch as none of us had ever done an event like this before, but between us we discussed ideas, pooled our knowledge of who within the business might be able to help us tackle particular tasks and started to form a plan. Thankfully my manager was very supportive of this initiative and not only allowed me time to attend meetings to plan the event (mostly in lunch times) but also gave me time on the day to make sure the event went without a hitch. I am lucky that the idea to run the market and the new policies about staff engagement and getting involved in staff networks have come at the same time so we didn’t need a big culture shift to free up time to do this.

To make sure we were meeting a demand, a survey was sent to staff in the run-up to the event to find out what people wanted to see at the market, times they would like it to be run and how often it should occur. Interested staff were encouraged to provide their details and, once a date and venue had been confirmed, a call for volunteers was sent to this group. Many staff offered to donate an hour or so of their time and volunteers were given tasks such as helping vendors set up on the day.

As the venue was off-site we were slightly anxious about turnout at the first event so we tried to provide added value events which give people extra reasons to come and just have a look at the market. We held a tombola-style raffle which cut down on admin during and after the event and allowed us to get a sense of the number of customers. All the vendors were happy to donate something to the raffle. I also contacted some of the larger online companies such as Ecover, Faith In Nature, Splosh and Who Gives A Crap (they do eco-friendly loo roll in case you hadn’t guessed) to see if they would be willing to contribute. For our October event we also organised a repair cafe with Cambridge Carbon Footprint so people could book in a slot for their clothing/fabric, books and electrical items to be repaired.

How did you reach out to vendors like Lush and Full Circle?

I’m a firm believer in the attitude that if you don’t ask, you don’t get…so why not ask? This project definitely brought out the confident side to me and I just picked up the phone, or emailed, as many sustainable retailers as I could contact. I deliberately tried to reach out to local vendors so that the market is supporting local suppliers who want to make a change, I also already knew some of the vendors myself which helped. I would encourage others looking to run an event like this to remember that you are providing potential vendors with a customer base that they may not otherwise reach. I had a really positive response from vendors, particularly from the smaller businesses that are often looking for new opportunities. Full Circle for instance, have been with us since the beginning and are one of our strongest advocates.

Since the success of the first event, vendors have been keen to return and, as the market will happen regularly, we will keep our doors open to other sustainable vendors which may be interested in participating.

Do you have any tips for anyone looking to run their own Zero Waste Pop-Up Market or similar?

  • The first event will be the most time and labour intensive, after this they become more and more self-sustaining. Don’t try and do it all yourself. Find some like-minded people who are all prepared to offer something to make the event a success.
  • Cultivate a relationship with Premises and Venue Management staff. Find out who you need to contact about things like getting furniture moved in the venue, tables for the vendors, where to borrow trolleys to move things around and how you can meet the basic needs of the vendors’ refreshments on the day. Producing a checklist of tasks will help manage everyone’s time effectively and an online tool like a doodle poll will allow people to sign up for a short period or for a specific task.
  • Think about how you’re going to communicate your event and use as many avenues as possible to get the message out. Whether this is cornering chief executives in dark corners and asking them to promote your event in an all staff email or putting posters up, really think about how you’re going to get the word out.
  • Have fun with it! Think about what you want the event to achieve and how it fits with the values of your organisation but remember that this doesn’t need to be desperately complex - build it and they will come!

What have you found most rewarding about running the event?

The big thing is feeling like you’re making a difference. It’s so easy to watch a programme like War on Plastic and think how on earth are we going to dig ourselves out of this huge hole that we’ve put ourselves in? But something like this event, it may be small, just a drop in the ocean, but at the end of the day all those drops are going to make a difference.

I’ve met so many people who share the same mindset and passion about our planet and the enthusiasm we’ve had from everybody has been incredible. It’s been really, really heartening to see how many people have engaged with these markets and said thank you to us.

One of these grateful customers is Andrew Field and his family, in particular his daughter JJ Field who wants to not only do her bit for the environment, but to encourage others to do so too: 

“As a family we are already seeing a positive impact from the pop-up market. I purchased quite a few BeeBee wraps and they have transformed our daughter’s lunch. Due to a number of long-term health challenges, JJ finds eating a struggle but the BeeBee wraps have helped her wrap and take control of her lunch for the first time. This has in turn boosted her confidence to stand up and share environmental issues at school and at home. As JJ says, ‘getting them [the BeeBee wraps] at home has helped me be more environmentally friendly, but there is much more to do. If we don’t, the Earth is going to be gone […] There’s just one problem with the wraps – Daddy doesn’t fold them properly, so I have to do it.’”

Vendors have also valued their involvement with the market, as Lauren from Lush Cambridge says:

“We loved attending the Zero Waste event the past two months at the Cass Centre. It gave us an insight into other eco-friendly businesses in Cambridge and the local businesses were given a great spot too which is always a triumph. It was brilliant to reach out to people beyond our store in the city centre and to bring our products to customers who may not venture into the city of Cambridge often. We saw it as an opportunity not only for ourselves but for our customers too as we can really show off our range of eco-friendly, cruelty-free and vegan/vegetarian products and show that there is an environmentally friendly option for Christmas on the high street. We can't wait to come back in the future!”

Thanks so much for your time Ellen, do you have any final words?

I have found a huge groundswell of support and volunteers among the staff and management at Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press. This market would not be possible without the support of my colleagues who helped me plan and run the event, and the staff who support it by changing their shopping habits.

I really hope this will encourage other people to set up their own schemes to get the word out there, or at least go and find the local suppliers and support the really great work they are doing to promote sustainable consumerism. Full Circle (Cambridge market), Cam Home & Garden (Milton Road), Lush (Lion Yard) and BeeBee Wraps (online and various stores) are not the only ones. Radmore Farm Shop on Mitcham’s Corner, Arjuna Wholefoods on Mill Road and Daily Bread off King’s Hedges Road are also doing similar but different products.

The environmental problems we are facing can seem insurmountable but changing our consumer patterns is a small but important part of that. This is a small event but it has a big reach, and it’s part of a growing movement. I am hopeful that by encouraging people to come off autopilot, and making it convenient to make those consumer changes, we can have a big impact. Sometimes all you need is an idea and you find the world wants to come with you on the journey.

Read more about reducing waste: