I went to college in Worcester, Massachusetts in the late ‘80s. If you lived in that area and wanted to buy anything in bulk, there was only one store to go to, Spag’s. It’s no longer around but it was one of those legendary stores where you could find almost anything sold at the lowest prices. Merchandise was stacked in every possible nook and cranny and it was impossible to find anything but every Spag’s employee somehow knew where everything was.
One of the ways they kept prices low was by not giving you shopping bags. Having bags in your car for shopping wasn’t something people did back then so you would carry your purchases in your arms or, if you were lucky, you could snag an empty box that had been lying around. I still remember my best friend’s dad telling me about Christmas shopping at Spag’s when his kids were young and buying an armload of presents and walking out to throw them in the trunk and repeating several times. He ended the story with, “It was cheap but what a pain in the a$#!”.
It’s hard to imagine living without bags. But we live in a different world now. Whether you’re buying for a retail chain or a grocery store or corporate promotional use, it’s becoming increasingly important to consider your choices and how it impacts the environment. Unfortunately, there is no perfect choice and there seems to be a minefield at every turn.
We have been encouraged to reduce, reuse, recycle for years now and more and more states are banning single use plastic bags. Natural fabrics sound like the best answer but when it’s reported that it takes several hundred uses of a cotton bag to equal the carbon footprint on a plastic bag, it gives one pause.
It would be possible to describe many more negatives for virgin plastic, recycled materials and natural fabrics but the fact is they’re also all good in their own way. Plastics are not good for the environment but it’s cheap and doesn’t require soil, water and fertilizer to produce. There is a lot less carbon footprint associated with manufacturing bags made of poly material such as RPET (recycled from water bottles) or PP (polypropylene).
Natural fabrics on the other hand do require these elements and much more energy to harvest and process into usable textiles but you could throw a jute bag in the trash along with your leftover pizza with no guilt. We’ve made New Yorker totes for many years now but we still have samples from the first production run that we use for groceries in our home and by my rough calculation probably have used it over 1,500 times. When it’s free or inexpensive and have them readily available, it becomes second nature to grab one for shopping.
As a buyer, cost is your first priority. But along with that comes how the bag should look, how does it connect to your brand and, whether you’re selling it or giving it away to promote yourself, how does it emotionally connect with your customers so that they understand your effort in helping the environment.
While it’s a lot to think about, just remember that not all choices are bad. From NWPP to RPET to cotton and jute, there are a myriad of choices and they’re all useful and good in their own way. Ultimately, a well designed and well constructed bag that will be used over and over again often becomes the best sustainable option.