Monday, March 24, 2008
Just when we think we're getting to grips with this bookselling business, along comes something to trip us up, deliver some humility and remind us that there is still a lot to learn. So, to correct any misconceptions about the slick operation we run here at Mostly Books, a few weeks ago we discovered we were about to run out of plastic bags. More accurately, Nicki had been asking me repeatedly for some weeks to bring in more plastic bags from our garage (the unofficial 'mostly books' stock room extension) to which I'd been saying "I'm sure we must have at least another box down at the shop". You see, when we did our original bag order back before we opened, we had to order tens of thousands at the same time. Having loaded that little lot (paper and plastic) into storage, I couldn't believe that we'd managed to burn through so many since we'd opened. So, when eventually I'd hunted high and low at the shop, and reluctantly agreed that, yes, we did need some more, we were down to about 20 - and lo and behold, we'd only got paper bags left in the garage. Yoinks. However, this did provide us with a bit of an opportunity, as the thorny issue of plastic bags is a very hot political topic at the moment. Some towns have got rid of them completely, most retailers are looking at ways to reduce the number of bags they give out (spurred on by hints in the last budget of legislation in 2009) and even Gordon Brown has found himself allying with the Daily Mail to wage a war on plastic. Yep, plastic's hot at the moment. In Abingdon, there are a number of groups working on ways to eliminate plastic from shops - and having done quite a bit of research on this over the last few months, we've been submitting what we've found to various groups to work towards a solution. Here's some of the things we've found out, and what we're doing about it. Firstly, it's worth pointing out that not all plastic bags are equally bad. It depends on what they're made of, and how you use them. The worst offenders are the very cheap, flimsy plastic bags typically distributed by the major supermarkets. That weekly shop at Tesco can result in a whole load of these cheap carriers, which are difficult to re-use (they tear easily) and tend to get ditched straightaway. These bags are the ones that cause the most damage in the environment - wrapping around trees (creating "plastic forests" downwind of landfill sites) and choking wildlife in the marine environment. Any legislation aimed at reducing or eliminating plastic should probably target these types of bags first. Mind you, this would probably have a disproportionate financial impact on the big supermarkets. I wonder whether the government will do this first, mmm? The fact that these plastic bags are difficult to reuse is an important one. Re-using a good-quality plastic bag many times over is much better than binning it (it doesn't end up in the environment, and saves a goodly amount of energy) - and of course plastic can fold up pretty small for carrying around. Our view is - providing its used with responsibility, and the overall trend is for more alternatives to plastic, and people are educated to carry their own bags - then there is still a place for plastic. Many of our customers now bring their own cotton or calico bags (again, people that support local shops tend to be a bit more clued up about this, and go to greater lengths to bring their own bags. Another reason to go after the big out-of-town boys, eh?). We've noticed - even in the last few months - that increasing numbers of people are re-using plastic bags, and we have been giving give out less and less of them. Apart from when it rains. When it rains, everyone wants a plastic bag. I think this is something particular to bookselling: you might tolerate a few drops on your weekly shop, but books and rainwater don't go well together. When we did the booksigning at the Roger McGough event the other night, it tipped it down, and hardly anyone had come out to the theatre with a plastic bag tucked into their evening bag or pocket. People were buying books for gifts - they didn't want a paper bag. Also, book purchases tend to be heavy - and you need bags that won't break. We talked to our bag supplier (Selway Packaging in Reading) who were extremely helpful in working with us to find some solutions. When we asked if a strong paper bag might be a solution, we discovered that the ones available in the marketplace tend to be a) energy-intensive to produce, b) made in China and c) have card-reinforced bottoms which make them difficult to fold up. Hence they have a higher carbon footprint and tend to get chucked after a single use. So - taking all of these complicated factors into consideration (and probably rationalising our own position a bit given we had to make a final decision quickly!) here's our Mostly Books Bag Policy going forward: 1. We are committed to reducing plastic bags in the retail environment. To that end, we will continue to offer paper bags, ask if the customer needs a bag, and encourage the re-use of plastic bags as a first option. 2. If customers want a plastic bag, we now have 70% recycled biodegradable bags which are made in the UK. They are strong and emminently reusable, which we mention and encourage to all customers at the point of sale. 3. We are working with Selway to source and produce some organic, fairtrade cotton bags (printed up with our logo). We feel using existing bleached cotton has significant environmental impacts that make them unsuitable. So what do you think? Smug greenwash, or a genuine attempt to square the needs of the environment with the kinds of products we sell? We think plastic made of 70% recycled, biodegradable material is a good first step (taken with all our other measures - we did try to get 100% biodegradable but these, currently, are made of cornstarch and wouldn't be strong enough for heavy books). We'd certainly appreciate your feedback (although of course because we now have 9,500 '70% biodegradable recycled bags' sitting in our garage, if we have made a hideous mistake they'll be a certain amount of plastic egg on our faces...).