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The Sustainability Movement sweeping the retail food industry has arrived at the front end, where the humble shopping bag is getting an extreme makeover. Shoppers have given up the brown paper sack for new cloth status symbols. It's a big change in an industry known for the unglamorous catchphrase, Paper or plastic? The trend reached its peak in July, when Whole Foods offered customers limited-edition

The Sustainability Movement sweeping the retail food industry has arrived at the front end, where the humble shopping bag is getting an extreme makeover. Shoppers have given up the brown paper sack for new cloth status symbols. It's a big change in an industry known for the unglamorous catchphrase, “Paper or plastic?”

The trend reached its peak in July, when Whole Foods offered customers limited-edition canvas bags for $15. The totes — emblazoned with the phrase “I'm not a plastic bag” — were designed by Anya Hindmark, whose more aesthetic carryalls retail in Beverly Hills for more than $1,500.

Though it generated a lot of buzz, Whole Foods' program actually came along somewhat late. Many retailers were already well into their campaigns. Montvale, N.J.-based A&P began selling four varieties of reuseable shopping bags for 99 cents last November, with all proceeds going to support conservation efforts.

Ukrop's Super Markets, which owns 29 stores in the Richmond, Va., area, used to offer canvas bags for $2.99, and began awarding a 5-cent credit for every traditional bag customers reused. Most recently, the retailer replaced the canvas option with a 100% non-woven polypropylene bag, noted Mandy Burnette, the chain's marketing manager. The mesh bag is available in burgundy and green, and has a produce-related design on the front. Each one is 99 cents and is about the size of a traditional shopping bag, able to hold up to 35 pounds, said Burnette, adding that the company elected to use new and not recycled fabric because “it's difficult to ensure the quality and source of recycled material.”

The material is also more versatile than simple canvas, since it's water-repellant and durable for spot-cleaning and machine-washing. The ink on the logo and the design is “environmentally sound and contains no lead,” she said. Whereas most retailers sell reusable bags at checkout only, Ukrop's merchandises its new bags in different parts of the store.

“We're seeing a lot of reuse,” said Burnette, explaining that one of the retailer's key goals was to encourage repeated use. “Sales are good, and people like it.” Burnette herself has already bought four, which is enough to carry a week's worth of shopping, she said.

By embracing the green philosophy, supermarkets are making “reusable” and “recyclable” part of their shopping-bag credo. Haggen Food & Pharmacy, Bellingham, Wash., tells shoppers its plastic-byproduct totes are better because they require less energy to manufacture than new plastic grocery bags, which rely on petroleum and natural gas. Available since the summer at 99 cents each, the green bags might soon be joined by an insulated tote for hot or cold foods, as well as another one tailored to the shape of wine bottles.

Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, is also making reusable bags available at a number of its 102 stores and 99 pharmacies in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

“Many of our customers have told us they want a third option when checking out, in addition to the usual paper or plastic,” said Joe Duggan, a category manager.

Paper and plastic both have a long history of use within the food retail industry, and they come with their own advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, paper is a natural substance. However, the production of paper bags consumes trees and can contribute to air pollution. Recycling paper also requires chemical additives to bleach and break down the fibers.

Plastic bags are derived from petroleum and require more energy to manufacture than bags made of paper. The production of paper bags generates more pollutants than the process that produces plastic bags. Nevertheless, recycling plastic bags requires melting and reforming, a process that's pricey and time-consuming. And, while plastic bags are not biodegradable, they take up less room in landfills.

As the debate over natural resources mounts, it's good that retailers are leaning toward reusable bags as a viable third-option alternative.

Schnucks has sold a reusable, fairly heavy canvas bag priced at $3 in all its stores for several years. Recently, as the inventory of these bags began to dwindle, management decided to rethink cost and construction.

“We knew that if we made it lightweight, stronger, more attractive and sold it at a lower price, it would meet the budget and lifestyle requirements of our customers,” said Lori Willis, Schnucks' communications director. The goal, she said, was to cap the price at $1, which would get the new bag into as many hands as possible.

Schnucks, which also has an active drop-off recycling program for plastic bags, introduced the new version of its reusable bag in October. The brown bags sport the retailer's logo and are made of 100% non-woven polypropylene — a material commonly used by the health care, packaging and floor covering industries. At a dollar apiece they're selling fast, according to Willis.

The retailer partnered with Earthwise Bag Co., Commerce, Calif., to produce the new carryalls. They contain a thin plastic base for stabilization, and are easier to wash, resistant to corrosion and both hypoallergenic and nontoxic. One of the key improvements over the original is the new bag's flexibility. Customers can bring several into the store and load them up for a large shopping trip. Schnucks is already planning for a third version, with a reworked design, that might debut as early as the end of the year, Willis said.

In addition to doing what's good for the environment, retailers have another motivation to get with the program. Reusable bags make for good business. By encouraging the purchase of reusable bags, stores benefit from customers carrying what, in effect, are walking advertisements for their supermarket.

“For stores, it's a way to expand their logo,” said Lynn Altman, a branding expert and author of “Brand It Yourself.”

It's also a way to engender loyalty, since it demonstrates the degree to which a retailer is eco-friendly. People who share that vision create their own community, in which the store is the center, explained Altman.

“A store's reusable bag becomes a badge,” she said. “So much of branding is showing your own status and what you believe in. The consumer wants to be proud to use it.”

Much can be learned from department stores that have created highly desirable and instantly recognizable bags, such as those from Tiffany's, with their iconic blue ink. Altman's advice for stores considering reusable bags is to add more than just a logo, and to think about how consumers might feel about carrying it. Consumers may see a reusable bag as more than just a way to carry groceries, she said.

Don't Bag Variety

Vicente Foods offers its celebrity clientele any number of choices for their purchases. The retailer, located on the west side of Los Angeles, offers a highly distinctive red-and-white vertically striped paper bag. It also uses the trendy and high-status design on plastic. About three years ago, Vicente Foods, which also participates in a program that allows its customers to recycle plastic bags, introduced the design on a reusable cloth bag with a black shoulder strap. Priced at $7.99 and larger than a typical shopping bag, it has sold very well since its debut, said Bob Inadomi, Vicente's general manager.

Then, about a year and a half ago, Vicente Foods replicated the design onto another bag, this one made of polypropylene and carrying a unit price of $1.99. The store currently offers all four versions.

“We don't veto anything. We allow our customers to try them all,” said Inadomi. “We let them be the judge.”
— CC