Bag, please

You might describe my boyfriend and I as environmentally conscious people. We don't work for Greenpeace or anything, but we saw An Inconvenient Truth and read Cradle to Cradle and subscribe to Dwell and make efforts to buy organic and conserve energy and recycle.

So you might expect this to translate to our shopping habits, and typically it does. When we each bought something at J.Crew last weekend, we asked that our purchases be put into one bag. Two bags is a waste. Sure, the salesgirl agreed, and put my stuff in his bag. Good for the environment, bad for the store.

Why is it bad for the store? Because shopping bags are a form of real-world advertising. You see a woman, presumably a well-dressed one, holding a J.Crew bag. Consciously or not, you ascribe her qualities to that brand. Wow, you think, J.Crew sure has attractive and fashionable customers. Maybe I should shop there too.

Stores want those bags out in the world, not tossed in a closet. This is why shopping bags have gotten more like purses and less like throwaways in the past few years. I've been handed bags lined with ribbon, coated with splashy paint, and made of materials far less recyclable than paper. The bag is now an extension of the brand, and with that title comes an obnoxious amount of waste. So whenever possible, I act like an informed consumer, and I skip the bag.

But sometimes, being an informed consumer isn't enough. We also visited Crate & Barrel last weekend. And what do C&B cashiers do with every item? They wrap it in tissue paper. Does that tissue paper save ceramic plates from cracking? I highly doubt it. But perhaps it gives the impression of safety. So fine, wrap each individual plate. Maybe it's helping people to think their new dishes won't break in the trunk of their SUV on the ride home.

However, we were buying dish towels. Just dish towels. Nothing fragile or heavy or expensive. Certainly dish towels don't need to be wrapped - if anything, they should be the wrapping! But it all happened so fast: the guy grabbed a big sheet of tissue paper, my boyfriend called out, "You don't need to - " and the guy cut him off with, "Too late!" He quickly finished the wrapping, gave a cheery smile and handed us the bag.

Shut down. We lost. We were no match for this man's sheer corporate obedience. He's been trained to wrap everything, presumably because of some "out-of-box experience" philosophy that everyone and their mother has borrowed from Apple. Perhaps Crate & Barrel imagines that when shoppers get home, they see their new dish towels, lovingly wrapped by the hands of the brand itself, and tied with a nice big bow of lifetime loyalty and positive word-of-mouth.

But does the wrapping make a difference to people? Do the bags make a difference to people? Because not to get all Doom And Gloom on you, but they are making a difference to our planet.

Now I don't think people are going to take a stand, exactly. You can raise awareness all you want, but you won't get shoppers to stomp their feet in defiance and say "If you wrap that placemat in tissue paper, god help me but I will never shop here again." Sure, we say, wrap it. Give me a big ornate bag filled with crinkly paper. It looks nice, implies some safety, and makes me feel special.

But frankly, people just take the bag because it's the default. They have their plates wrapped because it's the default. Americans will choose the default way more often than not; it's one less decision they have to make.

With that in mind, a good way to make change is to ask people to do nothing. Just engineer the environment around their inaction. So what if the default was no bag, no wrapping? The bag was readily available if they asked, but if they did nothing, they wouldn't get one? I think it would be a different world. Some people would take their dish towels as-is, and carry them out to the car. Or stick them in their backpack or purse. Many would ask for bags, but not all. Some would learn that they didn't really need a bag after all.

A final story: My mother used to buy our milk from a drive-thru shop called Farm Stores. She'd use the same line every time. "Gallon of skim milk, no bag." Every single time. We just didn't need a bag. It was one gallon of milk, and we were driving it straight home. She was an informed consumer, and didn't want to waste. However, because of this tiny extra effort, my mom was surely in the vast minority of customers.

Imagine if people had to say "Gallon of skim milk. Bag, please." I think we'd move the needle on packaging waste at retail.


Nancy said...

I have canvas grocery bags that I use every time I go to the supermarket. They have my store's name on them, (Publix) and were sold by the store. (Yes, I paid to advertise for them.) I have been using them for probably 15 years. I have never seen another shopper using these bags. By the way, Whole Foods credits their customers 5 cents for each bag they bring along.

april said...

STOP THE TISSUE PAPER PLEASE!!! It is incredibly frustrating to: 1) wait in line 2) wait for the credit card to go through 3) wait for her to find a pen so I can sign the receipt and 4) wait for tissue paper to be carefully folded around my goods and sealed with a sticker before they put it in a bag that is way too big. This is crazy. I do not need tissue paper.

Anonymous said...

or, when you see a person with a j crew bag you think "hey, they are all about prison labor." well, at least as a few years ago all their catalog clothing was made by prisoners. i didn't ask about their retail clothes. it was odd calling their catalog sales folk, ask the rep if their clothes were made by prisoners - "i don't know, hold on while i speak to my boss." i wait on hold a couple of minutes, she returns "yes, our catalog clothes are made in prison." socially conscious indeed!


sara said...

Jojo - that's hilarious. And frightening.

April - I know, it's obnoxious. Ask Jeanne to show you her photo of the Crate & Barrel tissue paper after opening her wedding gifts. Apparently it covered their house.

Nancy - you have always been, and always will be, the pinnacle of an informed consumer.

Full disclosure: Nancy is my mom. :)

emily said...

I use canvas bags for groceries, too. About C&B however - I recently ordered a large amount of glassware for our office from the C&B.com, and it came overly wrapped and secured (which I appreciated as nothing was broken). As I took the items out of the box and unwrapped them, I noticed a little card that told me about how C&B uses GEAMI, 100% recyclable packaging material. The card read: "What could be greener? GEAMI allows us to use smaller boxes. Which means we can pack more orders on our trucks. Which means conserving fossil fuels on the road (as in tires, diesel, gas...) and of course, less pollution."

A different issue than store shopping, but it makes me happier, nonetheless.

hillary said...

a) in the third paragraph of this post, i really wanted to make some sort of joke about how most of the people i see carrying brand-name bags are terrible spokespeople for fashion...however, jokes don't really work over blogs.

b) i loved the paragraph about how we choose "default." god, imagine how different the world would be if this weren't true. i mean, if it weren't true in the smallest way - not that everyone would become super-proactive, they would just stop being non-active (inactive?).

c) i try to be good about bags. if i've got a big purse with me, or a bag from a first store, i'll put everything in it. it'd be nice if they re-designed bags to be more functional. i'm not sure how (they have those handle things at some stores, makes it easier to carry heavy stuff, i guess).

d) a lot of times when you get food "to go", they'll put it in a million containers. i try to avoid that. i'll say that i don't need a bag.

e) man. there was something else. what was it? oh, yeah. aldi. they make you bring your own bags or use the containers that the food came to the store in or buy a bag. they also make you put a quarter in their grocery carts to use them (you get it back). i assume all of this is motivated by saving money, but it is also less wasteful.