2015…A Greener Year In Retail

After spending just under two weeks in Hawaii, it amazes me that these beautiful islands are a part of the United States. It feels like a tropical country being able to drive up 10,023 feet to the summit of Haleakala for the sunrise, and then spend the rest of the morning laying on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Although everyone speaks English, the “alohas” and “mahalos” were fun to join in the Hawaiian culture. In talking with different local Hawaiian natives, I was impressed by their passion for their land and environment. They cherish every single sunrise and sunset and always know where the nearest ocean swell is for the best surfing. The rest of the United States seems to take these every day occurrences in nature for granted, although most of us don’t have land this beautiful to appreciate.

While enjoying our honeymoon on the first island we visited, my wife and I stopped at Safeway, a supermarket chain, to pick up food for our trip on the road to Hanna. I was surprised when our items were packed into large brown bags with handles at checkout. This reminded me of grocery shopping as a child and packing all those large brown bags into my parent’s minivan. The following week, on a different island, we stopped at the local Wal-Mart to buy breakfast and lunch items. At the checkout counter, the only bags they had were reusable ones and we were informed we had to purchase a reusable bag if we didn’t want to carry our items in our hands. Although we were in Hawaii, we actually had two reusable bags back at the hotel that we did not think to bring to the store. The cashier informed us that plastic bags were banned on the islands. I realized that this made sense due to the island’s love for their environment and the direct negative effects they see from the those plastic bags not being recycled.

After we purchased that first reusable bag, every time we stopped at a store in Hawaii, we were conditioned to bring our own reusable bag. Even now, back in Chicago, I find myself bringing my reusable bags to stores. I was first informed about the effort to reduce the plastic bag usage in retail about five years ago when stores starting promoting the use of reusable bags by giving five cents off your purchase for each reusable bag used. I thought that was a great promotion, but like most promotions, this only caught my attention for a couple of trips; it did not change my behavior. My behavior was changed in Hawaii where legislation banned plastic bags – and it has had a positive impact now that I am back in Chicago as well.

Even with all of the known facts about the harm that plastic bags can have on the environment, there are still groups that protest the legislation attempting to tax and ban their usage. These groups cite plastic bags being 100% recyclable, the jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry, and the increase in reusing plastic bags as reasons to oppose any legislation against plastic bags. The one major group that is in favor of legislation against plastic bags is retailers. This is one of the few cases where a ban in the retail industry is actually a benefit to the retailers. Plastic bags are costly to the store. Currently, stores have to monitor inventory levels of their plastic bags and dedicate a budget towards keeping them in stock. It is also costly to store these bags. Each pallet of bags equals one less pallet of saleable merchandise. Not only will legislation against plastic bags reduce a store’s expenses, it will also drive revenue with the increased sales of reusable bags.

Hawaii and California have taken the fight on plastic bags to the state level. Given the location and current sustainable struggles, these two states make sense as the first ones to take the ban statewide. Legislation is currently pending in Puerto Rico and east coast states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The map below shows different strategies taking place by states as this ban gains more and more momentum.

Back in April of 2014, the city of Chicago approved a ban on plastic shopping bags that will take effect in August 2015 for large retailers and August 2016 for smaller chain stores and franchises. At first, this inconvenience may cause a lot of frustration amongst consumers, but eventually, bringing your own reusable bags to the store will start become habit. And even for those who take less frequent trips and tend to load up on items or those that shop for large families, wholesalers like Costco and Sam’s Club do not provide paper or plastic bags and still maintain a very loyal membership base. San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags back in 2007 and has acted as a leader in continuing to extend the ban on more and more stores. Other cities caught on this year including Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Austin. 2015 will be an interesting year as consumers will be forced to change their checkout habits.

A national list of local plastic bag ordinances can be found at: http://www.cawrecycles.org/issues/plastic_campaign/plastic_bags/national

The shift from plastic bags to “bring your own bags” doesn’t have to wait until states mandate it. Retailers can help shape customer behavior – improving both the environment as well as their bottom line. Sustainability is a powerful force gaining momentum from government regulation, business leadership, corporate valuation, and consumer behavior. Retail is only one sector in the business world beginning to prioritize the long term benefit of economic gain, social welfare, and environmental protection. For more information on how retailers can incorporate sustainable practices into their operations, please contact me

1 Comment

  • Molly January 18, 2015 6:34 pm

    This is a very well-written article. I have been looking forward to reading it. As you know, I am a huge proponent of banning single-use plastic bags. Bag taxes are also an interesting avenue. Have you looked at any of the information available about them? They are highly effective. Also, this organization has lots to say about environmental issues and consumption: http://storyofstuff.org/ It is very interesting.

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