Boston: Forty-two-year-old Pankaja Kothari is tired of getting into arguments with executives at large format retailers over her insistence on carrying her own shopping bags, every time she goes out to shop for groceries. This Mumbai resident just cannot figure out why she must take home one plastic bag every time she picks up a bundle of spinach, couple of lemons or a handful of ginger and chillies from the fresh produce section.
“I hate to carry home mounds of plastic bags. My teenaged daughter lectured me the other day on the ills of using plastic shopping bags and would not believe it when I told her that is the only way I can shop at the larger retail stores”, says this mother of two.
Kothari’s anti-plastic stance finds a resonance with the concerns of local municipal corporations and state governments, who have for years struggled to cope with the menace of plastic shopping bags.
Retail growth = Choking from plastic boom
As India’s retail story braces itself to grow from $300 billion to $637 billion by 2015, it has to concurrently arm itself with tools that can ward off the ill-effects of mountaineous heaps of plastic shopping bags.
With an estimated one trillion plastic shopping and grocery bags used across the globe every year, governments around the world are in the process of implementing stringent regulations that will significantly reduce consumption through a variety of ways including taxing production of these bags and taking away profits of retailers who continue to give away plastic shopping bags.
A shopper looks at produce at a Wal- Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas, US. Wal-Mart says each of its reusable shopping bags eliminates the need for 100 plastic ones. It claims it has sold enough of these bags in the last few months to eliminate the need for at least 400 million plastic bags. Photo: Bloomberg News
International retail giants lead by example
On 2 June, 2008, the Chinese government formally banned retailers from handing out free bags to shoppers, thus taking a giant step in its journey towards leaving a cleaner country. With this, the Chinese — believed to be the largest consumers of plastic shopping bags in the world with three billion bags used everyday — joined countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, France and Ireland, who have recently declared war against the plastic shopping bags.
UK retailer Marks and Spencer said this February it will stop offering free plastic bags at its 600 food stores in a move to fight the plastic menace. Environmental groups in the country estimate that some 13 billion throw away plastic shopping bags which are given by high street retailers in the country every year.
They said they would charge 5 pence for the bags and said it is hopeful this could result in an almost 70% reduction of these bags by consumers. Across the border, the Irish government has reported an almost 90% reduction in consumption of plastic shopping bags after it introduced a bag tax of 16 pence. France is working towards completely banning free plastic shopping bags by 2010 but retailers currently charge consumers for reusable bags.
Indian retailers bite the bait
Indian retailers too are now taking their first baby steps towards reducing the use of plastic bags at their outlets and each of them are figuring out how best to do this without taking customer footfalls away from their stores.
The humble jute/cloth bag that Indian moms of yore carried on their regular trips to the market are all set to make a comeback as retailers push to make bring-your-own bag the new mantra for making retailing a green initiative.
Spencer’s Retail Limited has just begun a pilot project in Chandigarh where some of the outlets use jute bags instead of plastic. Over the next few months, the retailer, with a network of 400 stores across the country, plans to take the experiment to 20 additional outlets in the city before taking it to their other outlets across the country.
The Future Group’s 100-odd KB Fairprice retail brand outlets are shifting to ‘No free bags’ or ‘Plastic/jute bags for a price’, says a group spokesperson. They will introduce the concept to shoppers at their network of 90 Big Bazaar stores.
Lessons from Wal-Mart
Indian retailers could take lessons from the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, who post-October 2007, introduced reusable shopping bags made from 85% recycled material. Priced at $1 each, the bags, with an estimated five-year life span, holds almost twice the amount plastic shopping bags hold and, at the end of their lifespan, the company will recycle these.
Wal-Mart estimates each of these bags eliminates the need for 100 disposable bags during its life time and says it has sold enough in the last few months to eliminate the need for at least 400 million plastic bags. To further fuel the green move within its stores, during Earth Month this April, it gave away one million bags to consumers.
In Japan, Wal-Mart’s Seiyu chain launched an initiative in June 2007 to encourage customers to use a ”bag for life,” or ”My Bag,” at all 394 Seiyu stores. As of December 2007, Seiyu hit the target of 30% of customers using their own bags, according to a Wal-Mart spokesperson.
In China, Wal-Mart teamed up with Unilever to promote reusable cotton shopping bags. It is also in the midst of a pilot project where experimental shopping bags made from recycled associate uniforms are being handed out free to customers to raise people’s awareness of sustainability.
The Chinese state council is a developing major drive to clean up the country ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games that will be held there later this year and is also saying that authorities should consider adjusting taxes to discourage production and sale of plastic bags while at the same time encourage the recycling industry.
Ikea, Whole Foods adopted green initiatives early on
Other retailers in the United States including Swedish retailer Ikea, New England retailer Stop n’ Shop and Whole Foods have also been at the forefront of a green initiative. Ikea’s 30 plus stores in the country charge five cents for each shopping bag that consumers use, with the proceeds going to American Forests, a tree plantation initiative. It sells reusable shopping bags for 50 cents each and estimates that the entire initiative will result in halving the 70 million plastic bags that are consumed in its stores every year.
Americans presumably consume 100 billion plastic bags every year, of which only 1-3% are recycled, while the rest end up in landfills, rivers and the sea, causing irreparable damage to not just land but the fragile marine eco system and animal life.
In Kerala, Reliance Retail is trying to convert the plastic shopping bag menace as an opportunity to get a foothold in the market and to bond with the community. At Pottammal, a tiny hamlet 7 km from the buzzing town of Calicut, groups of women from impoverished families make a livelihood making paper bags from used newspapers collected from the neighbourhood.
Afternoons in this village see women converge at one location where they spend hours fashioning bags, many times helped out by the elderly in the households. When thousands of these bags are ready, RRL executives are informed and the bags find their way back to the chain’s outlets in the neighbourhood.
“This project has in one stroke given women and the old, poor people a regular source of income. Our executives are finding that constantly being in the company of newspapers has actually whetted the curiosity of the women and many of them now actually read newspapers”.
While environmentalists and government machinery can cry themselves hoarse over the rapidly building plastic menace, a large portion of resolving the problem is also that of resistance from the consumers themselves who find them a convenient way to shop. “My maid loves to carry home these bags and complains if I even try getting my veggies in a cloth bag”, says Neeru Varshney, a Pune resident. Other households reuse these plastic shopping bags repeatedly till they tear before dumping it with the trash which eventually ends up in landfills, to the horror of local municipal corporations.
Additional discounts for customers bringing their own bags
Retailers treading the fine line between being socially responsible and standing the risk of angering their customers are now offering incentives to shoppers who bring their own bags to shop. Subhiksha Trading Services, India’s largest retailer in terms of number of outlets, rewards shoppers who bring their own bags at its 1,300 stores, by offering them additional discounts on their total bill. Ditto for Big Bazaar.
While state governments and municipal corporations have in the past tried banning the use of thin, single use plastic bags, the move has to a large extent been a failure with both small retailers and the public at large failing to adhere to the regulations. In February this year the Chandigarh administration announced it would ban the use of polythene and plastic bags from the union territory, as it choked up drains and sewage systems and caused rampant pollution of air, land and water.
The move has set off widespread protests from various sections of the public, including small retailers who point out that the alternative to these - papers bags - were much more expensive and would eat into their wafer thin margins. Other protestors pointed out that paper was also a threat to the environment as it meant cutting down of trees.
At Subhiksha, consumer response to its reduce plastic effort has been varied says Susmita Misra, vice-president, marketing. ”While the older consumers have switched (to bringing their own bags from home), others continue to be happy with the use of plastic bags. We have made a beginning and are hopeful that this will soon gain momentum as people become more environmentally conscious”, Misra said.
Samar Singh Sheikhawat, vice president, Marketing, Spencer’s Retail says it is too early to gauge consumer response to the imitative but said the company is positive about it since jute bags are sturdy, have a long lifespan and are eco-friendly.
Large format retail is meanwhile, keeping up a studied silence on the extent of shopping bags they currently use in their shops and are showing cautious optimism about their cut down on plastic.