Verena Kassar “Das Gramm” // Zero Waste store in Graz

Interview: Tiago Krusse, originally published in DESIGN MAGAZINE

Verena Kassar was born in 1985 in Upper Styria and grew up in close connection with nature on a small forest and meadow farm. She attended a secondary school with a focus on economics and cultural tourism and studied Art History and Exhibition Design in Graz. After working in various jobs both domestically and abroad, she opened the first unpackaged store in Styria, “das Gramm,” in 2016. Verena founded several projects focused on resource conservation, such as “Refill Austria” and “BackCup Graz.” In 2021, she established the “Gramm Academy,” which trains climate protection and Zero Waste coaches. In 2023, Verena founded the non-profit association “das Gramm, Educational Association for Resource Conservation,” closing the commercial enterprise to devote her attention entirely to consciousness-raising initiatives in her academy and association. Currently, she is collaborating with partners from the social sector to develop an “Inclusive Climate Protection Education” program, aiming to make climate protection accessible to all. Verena resides in Graz and Bad Aussee with her partner and stepdaughter.



“Das Gramm Graz was a well-known Zero Waste store in Graz, Austria. It opened its doors in 2016, offering a wide range of unpackaged products sourced locally and organically. The concept goes beyond just selling groceries and promotes sustainable shopping, education, and environmental conservation. In 2021, Gramm Graz expanded its offerings by introducing an Academy for Climate Education, emphasizing its commitment to raising awareness about climate issues. However, in 2023, the decision was made to close the food retail aspect of the business, shifting the focus towards consciousness-raising initiatives. Gramm Graz has become a pioneer in the Zero Waste movement, inspiring people to make conscious and eco-friendly consumption choices.”


1. What triggered in you the desire to start up the zero-waste grocery store in Graz?


My biggest wish was to enjoy going to work every day and not just have a job but to find fulfillment in what I do. After many internships in various industries, it became clear to me that the ideal company I was looking for didn’t exist. I wanted to find out if it is so difficult to work fairly, in all directions, on an equal footing for a meaningful project, or to create such a place for more people. During this time, I met my founding team and brought the idea of a Zero Waste store to Graz.


2. In light of this project, how do you define your spirit and the ideal that gave you the strength to make it happen? 


The great advantage of embarking on completely new projects is that you don’t know what to expect. Approaching projects with a certain naivety and being convinced that you are the right person for the job is an advantage. What adds to my happiness is my idealism, which likely formed the foundation for this project as well.


Not to be forgotten is the entire team that approached this project with the same vision all along – to create a better tomorrow for everyone, to try everything out, and to give it their all. Together, we are always stronger, both mentally and physically.


3. How much time was needed to structure the concept before implementing it?


The concept of a Zero Waste store was not entirely new in 2015, so we could learn a lot from Vienna, Berlin, and Cologne. However, the desire to have such an opportunity in Graz had been there much earlier. After completing the business plan, we began the search for a suitable retail space, which turned out to be the longest phase of investment during the startup phase of the project. The ideal location for a new retail store concept is fundamentally important for quick success.

I am a fan of simple experimentation, similar to the Lean Startup method. The first version is rarely the best, so you just have to start, observe, and improve. The intensive phase of developing the design, sourcing producers, searching for investors, and a location took approximately six months. We also opted for crowdfunding, which allowed us to measure the demand for a Zero Waste shop through the pre-sale of shopping vouchers. This phase lasted an additional two months. The renovation and adaptation of the retail space took another three months, meaning that it took us about a year to fully implement the entire concept.


4. When did the grocery store open?


The Gramm, a small grocery store, opened on April 29, 2016.


5. What opportunities and challenges did Graz bring to the project?

Graz is a green oasis. From the beginning, we were certain, and still are, that there couldn’t have been a better city than Graz for the project of the first Zero Waste grocery store. The local scene is receptive to such topics, and the interest has been significant right from the start. Additionally, the support from the city in 2015 was ideal for a startup. There were grants for crowdfunding, rent subsidies, and support for female entrepreneurs. What makes Graz particularly suitable for a project in the food sector is the abundance of local agricultural enterprises nearby. There are only a few cities where the production facilities for such a diverse range of regional products are so nearby. The people of Graz value regional products from their state, and the personal connection to the retailer, who works closely with the producer, is a significant advantage in a small city.

There are always challenges, especially when striving to work in a fair and climate-friendly manner in all directions. New possibilities had to be developed for carbon-neutral delivery, such as cargo bike transportation, and the option of collective deliveries has emerged in recent years. These challenges, however, are not specific to Graz but are commonly found in pioneering projects.


6. How has the implementation of the established program evolved and how has your action gained repercussions among the population? 


Looking back, it is incredibly fascinating to observe the interest in the project. There were many ups and downs in terms of customer interest and footfall. We didn’t have a single year that followed the same pattern or could be compared to another. The only constant and most valuable aspect was our loyal customer base, who regularly came to shop from the very beginning, and their tremendous support during challenging economic times. Therefore, I highlight this constant factor, as it is where I can observe the most significant impact of our project.

The change in people’s shopping behavior, focusing on mindfulness and awareness, and addressing the issue of resource conservation through daily consumption, clearly had a profound impact on their entire lives. When one starts questioning and consciously examining small things, it gradually leads to questioning other aspects of life. After preferring local food, one begins to consider the source of their electricity and the origins of the clothing they wear… It is a beautiful transformation that we have witnessed throughout the years.

Furthermore, the feedback from our customers has always been incredibly motivating and positive, emphasizing that this change had nothing to do with deprivation but rather enriched their lives in every aspect.


7. The decision to put an end to the project is due to a moral conflict between the aims of an ideal and the economic dynamics of a business model. Why was it more important to stop at the grocery store?  


The decision to close the retail store was, of course, not a spontaneous or rash one. The challenges of the years during the pandemic drained a lot of energy from our team, as those years required constant reinvention. Our idealistic determination would have lasted a few more years if we had skipped the pandemic. However, only in hindsight do we realize that we would have never experienced such intense unity between consumers and small businesses without the pandemic. Therefore, this experience was an emotionally significant time for the project.

Our vision of always acting in the best interests of a good future for everyone could not withstand the economically required steps. With our project of calculating the “true value of food,” we had already created the necessary awareness for regional food. However, we also knew that it was not possible to increase our prices. Despite absolute fairness, we would not have been marketable. Due to price increases in raw materials, rent, and electricity, we would have had to pass those increases directly onto the customers with two stores. Automatically, this excludes a large group of people who can barely cover their cost of living in general. In the daily routine, the conflict with one’s vision may not be immediately noticeable because one is functioning. But when you have time for reflection and questioning, you can no longer look away from the actual problem.

As a team, we achieved everything we set out to achieve. We grew personally and as a team, reached and influenced many, many people, and positively changed lives. We functioned exceptionally well as a team and collectively overcame all challenges. However, we had to admit to ourselves that we treated ourselves the most unfairly throughout the entire project. Of course, one does not want to admit this for a long time, but when you look back at your vision, you realize that you have deviated from it. Therefore, the end of the retail business was only a matter of time.

We saddened many customers and closed an important consciousness-raising point for the people of Graz. However, the end of this project came as it did for many package-free stores across Europe. We much prefer to work collaboratively with customers and producers, where, for example, farmers receive the money directly without having to pay a distributor or retailer in between. Additionally, since 2021, we have been dedicating a portion of our energy to climate education. We have recognized that knowledge is the foundation for ethical action.

8. Your focus on education underlines what is most important to you. What can it change, in the sense of evolving, the behaviors and practices linked to the circuit that includes agricultural activity up to the consumption of food products?   


As mentioned earlier, knowledge is the foundation on which we must build, but it is important to note that education alone is not sufficient to create a more sustainable future. It requires political support, adequate infrastructure, incentives, and regulations to promote the implementation of sustainable practices. Nevertheless, education plays a crucial role in creating awareness about climate change and promoting behavior changes that can lead to a more sustainable circular economy, from agricultural practices to food consumption.

  • Education fosters critical thinking and the ability to analyze and evaluate complex problems.

  • Education can raise awareness about the impact of food consumption on climate change.

  • Education can provide the knowledge and skills needed to make more sustainable choices.

  • Education can inspire individuals to actively engage in climate action and sustainable agriculture.


9. Will the education, communication, and practical experiences you propose in academia be enough to change current patterns of behavior and have an impact on the quality of the food we eat and on sustainable lifestyles? 


A sole focus on education, communication, and practical experiences may not be sufficient to achieve complete behavior changes and sustainable lifestyles in terms of the quality of consumed food. However, these measures can make an important contribution and serve as a foundation for further changes. To achieve comprehensive changes in behavior patterns and the quality of consumed food, a holistic approach is required, which includes education, policy measures, economic incentives, technological innovations, and collaboration among different stakeholders. By combining these elements, we can work towards more sustainable food production and consumption.


10. What are the facts that concern you most about the current food superhighways?


I’m concerned about the loss of biodiversity. The intensive cultivation of monocultures and large-scale agricultural production, where the focus is still on growth and quantity, make it challenging to change habits. Too many natural habitats have already been lost. The continued use of pesticides and high water consumption contributes to a decline in species diversity and ecological imbalances.


11. What positive changes have you recorded in human behavior about this reality?


I’m delighted to observe a growing number of initiatives aimed at promoting regional food networks, to reduce dependence on long-distance transportation. Directly purchasing food from local producers and building closer connections between farmers and consumers strengthens the demand for regional and seasonal products. The fight against food waste has also gained importance. Measures are being taken at both individual and institutional levels to reduce food waste. There are increased efforts to rescue, donate, compost, or recycle food to minimize resource wastage.

What particularly pleases me is the growing appreciation and support for local farmers and producer communities. By buying products directly from the farm, visiting farmers’ markets, or participating in Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, consumers can strengthen local agriculture and support more sustainable food production.

12. In your understanding what is the most difficult thing, at this time, to combat?


A very pressing issue is the cost of fairly produced and traded food. Sustainable food often comes with a higher price tag, making it inaccessible to all consumers. The true value of food, including the environmental impacts, has yet to be fully reflected in legislation.

The current challenge is to make sustainable food more affordable and accessible so that it is not reserved only for privileged populations. Although awareness of sustainable food is increasing, many consumers still lack sufficient information or motivation to change their consumption habits. There is a need to strengthen awareness and educational initiatives to encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices.

“Think global and act local” is still a very effective approach for creating change. Countries, organizations, and stakeholders must collaborate on a global level to promote the transition to more sustainable food systems, support knowledge exchange, and disseminate best practices.

13. How do you assess the agricultural and food circuits in the Styrian region and the eating habits of the citizens of Graz?  


Styria has a reputation for its agricultural production, particularly in the realm of high-quality food. The region is well-known for cultivating apples, pumpkin seeds, wine, and other agricultural products. Graz is also known as the “capital of enjoyment,” which speaks volumes about its residents. Shopping at farmers’ markets is a popular activity, and the proximity to the countryside is highly valued, whether for a visit to a local wine tavern (Buschenschank) or direct purchases from farmers.

I’m pleased to observe that traditions can be combined with new ideas. There are already vegan wine taverns and even vegan mountain huts. These establishments, like other traditional businesses, focus on the pleasure of food, which is always at the forefront for us Styrians. I hope this trend continues and further expands. It is also noticeable on social media that people enjoy showcasing their farmers’ market purchases. It is important to celebrate sustainable decisions and to positively acknowledge the many small initiatives, which help to maintain motivation by taking many small steps forward.


 14. What does healthy and balanced eating mean to you? 


Health and balance mean something different for each body. It is important to first understand one’s body well, including its needs, tolerances, and sensitivities.

I am a proponent of embracing a colorful variety of foods and practicing mindful and conscious consumption. In the field of education, we teach the benefits of the Plant Health Diet, which is based on scientific evidence and recommends a plant-based diet with limited amounts of animal products. This diet serves as a framework for a healthy and sustainable way of eating that takes into account both human health and the health of the planet. Adapted to each body, this approach is a good path toward overall well-being.



Director Tiago Krusse

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