Creating an urban, eco-friendly alternative to Amazon is no small task. With 77 percent of people wanting to learn how to live more sustainably, reducing personal waste is a growing priority, especially among younger generations who are looking for ways to individually contribute to climate justice. One Philadelphia-based company is tackling sustainability in shopping in the D.C. area through student employees on the Hilltop.
The Rounds, a zero-waste delivery service, has expanded its business model to residents of Washington, D.C. and students at local universities for the last three months, providing affordable, environmentally conscious goods and services. Finding cost-effective, zero-waste solutions can pose a difficult challenge for Hoyas, as the nearest zero-waste refill store, Mason & Greens, is in Alexandria.
The company allows its customers to choose from more than 100 products including toilet paper, shampoo, hand soap, and select products from local vendors that are delivered to their doorsteps in reusable containers and totes, called bundles, via the company’s fleet of e-bikes.
The Round’s business model works best in high-density population centers, catering to the needs of a rapidly growing customer base without relying on delivery methods that leave a large carbon footprint, according to Kelly Gilbert, the D.C. marketing manager for The Rounds.
“The idea is this customized, tailored service for all your essentials to get you your things exactly when you need it, so you don’t need to panic buy on Amazon for next-day shipping,” Gilbert said. “That’s what we’re hoping to do in cities: make sustainability affordable, accessible, and convenient for everyone.”
The Rounds currently serves 61 Georgetown students living on campus and in the neighborhood, according to Gilbert. Their services are also available to students at George Washington University and select dorms at Howard University. For students living in Virginia, there are three different drop-off centers—Earth Treks in Crystal City, SportRock in Alexandria, and Compass Coffee in Rosslyn—where individuals can sign up to have their bundles delivered.
Customers have the option of scheduling bundle deliveries weekly, biweekly, monthly, or bimonthly. Old containers and bags are picked up on a scheduled basis and replaced with new ones at each delivery, creating a sustainable loop for individuals looking to lower their waste consumption.
“If you’re into environmental causes or if you’re interested in being more sustainable, this is really an effortless way to do it,” Camille Williams (COL ’23), who receives monthly deliveries from The Rounds on campus, said. “It’s very flexible—what you need and when you need it.”
To promote an individualized shopping approach, The Rounds’s algorithm measures how often an individual modifies the quantity and frequency of an order; this allows the company to deliver goods exactly when an item is needed. “Every individual will obviously go through things at different rates,” Gilbert said. “There’s got to be a way to predict your needs rather than on-demand buy everything.”
Ordinarily, there is a $6 monthly subscription fee that covers the cost of deliveries. The fee is waived for Hoyas who sign up with their university email address or use the code “Georgetown.” Students only pay the cost of the products themselves, which, since The Rounds orders the goods in bulk, are anywhere between 20 and 30 percent cheaper than most city retailers, according to Gilbert.
An additional perk for Hoyas is the drop-off location. “It’s very easy because it doesn’t come to the Leavey Center, it doesn’t come to the mailrooms, it comes directly to your dorm’s lobby,” Rebecca Friedman (COL ’24), a brand ambassador for The Rounds, said. The mail room, overwhelmed by staffing concerns, an unprecedented package volume, and weeks-long delays, was a source of student frustrations at the start of the semester.
The Rounds employs two Georgetown students who drop off bundles inside residence halls. Students receive two text alerts, once when their delivery is on its way and again once it has arrived, allowing students to walk down and grab their order just as they would with late-night food delivery.
CEO Alexander Torrey first identified a niche for The Rounds when he ordered soap from Amazon to his apartment. When it arrived in an excessively large box full of plastic packaging, Torrey realized how much unnecessary waste he and the other residents living in his high-rise apartment were contributing when they turned to Amazon for daily goods. “If we’re all ordering this way, there’s gotta be a better way to do this—a better way for the environment, a better way efficiency wise,” Gilbert said of Torrey’s thought process.
Torrey went on to co-found The Rounds in 2019 with COO Byungwoo Ko, and the company initially focused on expanding in the Philadelphia region. Two months ago, The Rounds expanded into the larger D.C. area, and one month later, started servicing students at different universities, like Georgetown. According to Torrey, the company’s rate of expansion in D.C. during its first 30 days of operation eclipsed its growth rate in Philadelphia, which took several months to see the same levels of success.
As the company has expanded, it has had to overcome a perception problem. “[We’re] trying to break that stereotype that more ethical, greener stuff is more expensive,” Friedman said. “It is a difficult service to pitch because sometimes, I guess for me, it feels too good to be true.” Sustainably-sourced goods often come at higher prices due to the cost of organic ingredients and fair wages, and then are marked up to make a profit. The Rounds minimizes these high costs to consumers by purchasing in bulk.
One of the company’s goals, according to Gilbert, is increasing the number of partnerships it has with local businesses to provide a curated selection of goods to its subscribers. Students have the option of ordering goods from select D.C. businesses, like Compass Coffee, Seylou Bakery, or Bethesda Bagels.
Looking forward, The Rounds hopes to expand into other regions. “We’re trying to expand the zip code radius of where we can deliver,” Friedman said. As the scope of door-to-door deliveries increases, more individuals will be able to utilize the eco-friendly, zero-waste program.
“Our goal is no matter where you’re at, we can make something work,” Gilbert said.