Whether it is organic produce, non-toxic shampoos and deodorants, or a half-side of grass-fed beef, you and a group of friends can get together and order just about anything that can be had more cheaply by buying it in bulk.
Between rising food and oil prices and a depressed economy, organic, pasture-raised, and healthy, natural products are more expensive than ever. But you can make them substantially cheaper by throwing in with your friends and family to buy in bulk quantities.
In the first study of its kind to look into the benefits of buying in bulk, research conducted by Portland State University Food Industry Leadership Center for the Bulk is Green Council (BIG), revealed that Americans could save an average of 89 percent on costs by buying their organic foods in bulk.
Bulk foods obviously use far less packaging, but you may not realize how quickly this adds up.
According to the report, if Americans purchased the following products in bulk for one year, it would save hundreds of millions of pounds of waste from going into landfills:
- Coffee: 240 million pounds of foil packaging saved from landfills
- Almonds: 72 million pounds of waste saved from landfills
- Peanut butter: 7 pounds of waste saved from landfills per family
- Oatmeal: Saves five times the waste of its packaged equivalent
There are benefits to manufacturers too, who can save an average of 54 percent on material and delivery costs by packing foods like nuts, dried fruit and trail mix in bulk.
How to Start a Food Buying Club
If you have a large enough group to meet the minimum order price on a relatively regular basis, you can set up a wholesale account with a lot of different natural product and organic food vendors, both local and out-of-state. This can save you hundreds—or even thousands of dollars a year!
Some of the benefits of buying clubs include:
- Access to high-quality, natural and organic products at bulk or wholesale prices.
- Buying clubs build a sense of community amongst the members.
- Members gain a greater connection to their local small businesses, farms and ranches.
- Members share opinions and learn about products from each other.
- Buying in bulk also reduces the amount of packaging that is produced by the manufacturer.
- Reducing carbon emissions due to shipping only one order per club purchase vs. if members ordered individually.
- Purchasing products from businesses, farms and ranches that share similar values as your club.
Starting with just five or six families, the buying clubs here in San Diego eventually grew large enough to need tools like Google Groups to communicate and Google Docs spreadsheets to place and keep track of orders among dozens of families. Paypal became invaluable for ensuring that members pay for their orders in a timely fashion.
Eventually, we needed some administrative leadership and some formal rules to keep everything organized and accountable. Whether the leadership is formal or informal, static or rotating, paid or voluntary depends on what works for your group.
Ultimately we have grown to need a food scale and a few used, deep-chest freezers (bought off of Craigslist) to hold orders in someone’s garage until they can be picked up by members. (Never buy a new freezer: There are simply too many used ones in perfect working condition to keep out of the landfill!)
While I don’t think we want our buying clubs to grow so large that we need a storefront or warehouse to hold all the products, if you wanted to go in that direction, know that most co-op grocery stores got their start as little garage-and-kitchen-table operations like ours.
I’m proud to say that between gardening, buying clubs and farmer’s markets, we barely need the grocery store anymore—and we certainly never pay retail “Whole Paycheck” prices for expensive things like non-toxic sunscreen, organic almond flour or pasture-raised poultry.
And as an added benefit, we have the satisfaction of knowing that most of the money we spend on food, housewares and personal care is going to great small businesses and nearby family farms and ranches, instead of huge, unaccountable, corporate chains.
Once you get your buying club together, you’ll be amazed at the deals you can negotiate simply by having a group large and organized enough to regularly buy in bulk.
Here are some of the great national and regional vendors where our buying clubs have set up wholesale accounts:
- Azure Standard – From organic cereals, pasta, and yogurt, to bulk nuts and produce, if it’s a packaged food you’ve seen at a health food store, Azure probably has it. Only available in certain parts of the country.
- Frontier – Frontier is a national co-op that provides buying clubs with teas, coffees, spices, bulk food items, personal care items, household items, culinary accessories, vitamins, and supplements. They have thousands of Fair Trade items and carry all the major, natural brands like Frontier, Simply Organic, Aura Cacia, Ecover, Seventh Generation, Dr Bronner, and more.
- Mountain Rose Herbs – An outstanding source for any and every type of herb, spice, tea, essential oil or traditional fat you might need for cooking or natural medicine. Their vast selection can’t be beat anywhere on the net, and their prices are great, even at retail. Working with a co-op to order wholesale is even better!
- Thrive Market – An outstanding source for wholesale priced, organic packaged foods, and natural cleaning and personal care products. They have a membership fee, but their prices are great!
- Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil – Your grandmother was right: Cod liver oil is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can add to your diet to ensure good health. If you ferment it in the old, Norwegian tradition the way Green Pastures does it, then it is even better.
- Wilderness Family Naturals – Sustainably harvested and produced coconut oils, coconut milk and cream, chocolate spreads and nut butters, sprouted nuts and seeds, soy- and canola-free mayonnaise and salad dressings, REAL wild rice, and more. One of my favorite traditional food stores!
- Ancient Organics Ghee – Yummy ghee. Mmmmmm.
- Green Virgin Products – Bulk soap nuts and mineral salt deodorant stones.
- Shelton’s Poultry – Pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone free chicken and turkey. West Coast only.
- J&J Grassland Beef – A grassfed beef CSA with yummy steaks and really nice ranchers. Southern California only.
- Glacier Grown – Free-range bison by the half and whole animal (though butchered for easy sharing), raw honey. Southern California only.
We also bulk order a lot from small businesses, farms and ranches in our county:
- organic produce
- citrus, tropical fruit and avocados
- raw vegan ice cream
- raw honey
- raw milk, butter and cheese (by the 5-pound block!)
- olives and olive oil
- pasture-raised pork
- grass-fed beef
- pasture-raised chickens and eggs
- duck eggs
- fish and seafood
- stainless steel food tiffins
- diapers (both cloth and “eco-friendlier” disposables)
As a group, we also regularly go in together on online orders for clothing, housewares and more, whenever a member has a good coupon or free shipping. Clothing and toy swaps are relatively common too.
We keep a member business list so that we can hire each other for services before we open the Yellow Pages to hire a stranger. But the best part for me, as a full-time mom and caregiver, is that order pick-up days are often lively social occasions and multi-family playdates.
It’s amazing how social, sustainable, frugal, and fulfilled you can be when you start working together and sharing resources with your friends and neighbors.
Starting or joining a natural food buying club this year just makes good economic and environmental sense. It can also help connect you with the farmers and food produced locally in your region, and build a strong sense of community and connection in your neighborhood, social group and family.
What do you have to lose?
Here are some additional resources to get you started:
- A Cooperative Food-Buying Club Primer
- Food Buying Clubs: Discount Prices for Organics and Building Community – Organic Consumer’s Association
- Bulk Is Green Council 2012