Childhood friends Whitney Wagner, left, and Shannon Sweetwood operate a zero-waste pop-up shop providing environmentally friendly soaps and cleaning products.

Childhood friends Whitney Wagner, left, and Shannon Sweetwood operate a zero-waste pop-up shop providing environmentally friendly soaps and cleaning products.

Photo provided by Shannon Sweetwood


Local women support environment with pop-up shop

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published November 11, 2021

 Customers shop at the Refill Emporium at the St. Clair Shores Farmers Market.

Customers shop at the Refill Emporium at the St. Clair Shores Farmers Market.

Photo provided by Shannon Sweetwood

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ST. CLAIR SHORES/EASTPOINTE — Two friends were looking for a change.

One was a new mother. The other had a health challenge exacerbated by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitney Wagner, of St. Clair Shores, and her friend, Shannon Sweetwood, of Eastpointe, found a solution in a new business, the Refill Emporium, a pop-up zero-waste refill shop.

Wagner, a woman with epilepsy whose condition was under control for the past 12 years, had a breakthrough seizure in 2020. Her job in retail management had become even more stressful in the wake of the pandemic, so her doctor gave her two options: keep working in retail management or find something else to do.

She was pondering her options when a family friend asked her what, in a perfect world, she would like to do. She half-jokingly answered that she would like to buy the Eastland Center and fill it with local, sustainable vendors who were focused on environmentally friendly products or recycling. A short time later, she found herself explaining her “crazy idea” to Sweetwood. The pair have been friends for the past 26 years, since meeting in first grade at Harmon Elementary.

Wagner explained about refill shops, where customers bring their own containers to eliminate single-use plastics and fill them with eco-friendly supplies.

“At the time, I was joking,” she said, but Sweetwood didn’t think the idea sounded far-fetched. With a young daughter, Elliana, at home, she didn’t want to be working outside of the home and having others raise her child.

“She goes, ‘Let’s do it,’” Wagner recalled. “We both care about the environment. If we pull this off, we’re going to be leaving a planet for Ellie.”

The pair launched the Refill Emporium as a pop-up shop to fill a need they felt was lacking on the east side of metro Detroit.

“We give people the ability to bring their own clean and dry containers and refill things like cleaning products, beauty products like shampoo, conditioner (and) lotion,” Wagner explained. “Some of it, we make ourselves; others, we get from suppliers.”

While Wagner had retail management experience, Sweetwood had a biology degree, which she put to use researching and testing the products they were making, as well as finding suppliers that met their criteria for being good for both the environment and the people using them.

Sweetwood said she learned from the Environmental Working Group that only 7% of about 2,000 cleaning products tested report what is in their products accurately and, of those, 53% have lung-damaging ingredients in their products.

“We were looking at some big-name products. We found out that they’re not really good for the environment or people,” she said.

The Refill Emporium looks for local suppliers when possible and sources nothing outside of North America, including some loofahs and reusable bags from Zero Waste MVMT out of Canada and dish and hand soap from Yaya Maria’s, made in Flint. Made from just six ingredients, Sweetwood said they love Yaya Maria’s products, which is why they began a partnership with the company.

“They don’t have to worry about the fact that it’s harming them or the environment. Those were all things that were important to us, that we carry high-quality ingredients,” Wagner said.

While they don’t have a physical storefront yet, the Refill Emporium participates in farmers markets in St. Clair Shores, New Baltimore and Shelby Township, and it also offers an online store with contactless delivery to those living in St. Clair Shores, the Grosse Pointes, Harrison Township, New Baltimore, Shelby Township and Utica, as well as shipping.

Dry ingredient orders can be dropped at the door, Wagner explained. Customers ordering liquid refills just need to have their clean and dry containers ready for Wagner or Sweetwood to refill upon delivery. Alternatively, they offer 8-ounce and 16-ounce glass jars if customers don’t have an appropriate container available.

It doesn’t matter what kind of clean and dry container customers want to have refilled. Wagner said they will refill sour cream containers, wine bottles, shampoo bottles or any other type of container that is clean and dry. The Refill Emporium first weighs the container and then subtracts its weight from the weight of the product being purchased before charging the customer. Customers pay by the ounce, so they can purchase as much or as little as they’d like.

“The whole goal is to reduce the use of single-use plastics,” Wagner said. “Only about 9% of the world’s plastic ever gets recycled, and recycling should be your last line of defense against plastics.”

They also sell things like cotton flannel towels that can be used as a replacement for paper towels.

“A lot of people don’t know that about 13 billion pounds of paper towels go into landfills each year,” she said. “They’re great for picking up spills, dusting, wiping their sunglasses off, (and) you’re not releasing any sort of microplastics back into the environment.”

Wagner said she really has appreciated the regular customers they have gotten to know throughout the farmers market season.

“We are making moments with people that I never even thought was possible, and I get to do something great for the environment and I’m doing it with my best friend,” she said.

The pair hope to expand the line of products being offered, but in some cases, like with laundry detergent, they haven’t yet found a product that aligns with their goals.

“It’s something we take pride in, is making sure it’s a quality product,” she said.

The Refill Emporium will be at the Holiday Market at the Packard Proving Grounds in Shelby Township from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 20 and at MacRay Harbor’s Holiday Bazaar in Harrison Township from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 12. Check out refillemporium.com for future pop-up locations or to order online.

“Our main concept is, we’re more than just soap,” Sweetwood said. “It’s more of a lifestyle change, no matter if you’re just starting out on your zero-waste journey or you’ve been there awhile. It’s more of a lifestyle change to get you out of using single-use plastics and to bring attention to how much plastic we do use in our everyday life.”

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