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5 lessons from Closed Loop Partners' challenge to reinvent retail bags

Here's how nine retail innovators are addressing single-use plastic bag waste.

Person walks into a building, holding a Returnity bag in each hand

Image by Kelly Ann Petry

The single-use plastic retail bag is a highly visible symbol of our incumbent linear, take-make-waste system: these bags are used for an average of 12 minutes before they end up in landfills and waterways for hundreds of years. Transitioning this entrenched product into a circular system takes a concerted effort — one powered by unprecedented industry collaboration. That’s where Closed Loop Partners’ Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag comes in — working with some of the largest players in the retail industry, and accelerating some of the most forward-thinking innovators, to begin to move the needle.

In 2020, the Consortium launched the Beyond the Bag Challenge, a critical part of its broader Beyond the Bag Initiative, to identify long-term solutions that reimagine how to get goods home from an in-store purchase, from curbside pick-up and in-home delivery. More than 450 innovators from around the world submitted their ideas on how to reinvent the retail bag. In February 2021, the Consortium announced the nine winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge: 99Bridges; ChicoBag; Domtar; EON; Fill it Forward; GOATOTE; PlasticFri; Returnity; and Sway.   

As seen in the range of solutions selected as challenge winners, diverse approaches must be deployed to create a circular system for retail. All the solutions play a role in replacing single-use plastic bags, whether via innovative reusable bag solutions, enabling technologies, or by designing with alternative materials. Since the end of the Beyond the Bag Challenge, significant strides have been made to advance a circular system for the retail bag, and the winning innovations have helped pave the way. Let’s take a look at the progress that has been made in over a year, driven by five key trends:

1. More retailers are looking to test and pilot reusable bag solutions

The Beyond the Bag Challenge accelerated GOATOTE in its mission to bring reuse to the forefront of retail. Since being selected as a winner of the Beyond the Bag Challenge, the reusable bag company has not only started new pilots in New Jersey with some partners of the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag, but has also made plans to launch more pilots in 2022 and 2023 with additional retailers, and has expanded its solution to the Canadian market. Recently, GOATOTE was nominated as one of the Most Innovative Reuse Companies in the Consumer Packaged Goods category for The Reusies, the first award show celebrating pioneers in the reuse space.

Person using a GOATOTE kiosk for a reusable bag

Image by Kelsey Floyd

For Fill it Forward, being among the winners of the Beyond the Bag Challenge represented an opportunity to learn and test their technology in the retail environment, which helps amplify the impact of reuse through charitable giving. The insights led to the development of the Fill it Forward Web App, which allows customers to unlock the charitable contribution of every reuse without downloading an app, and integrates the Fill it Forward code directly to reusable grocery bags. Earlier this year, the company partnered with Target and ran a second pilot with the Fill it Forward Bag Tag and the accompanying Web App experience. The company is also in discussions with other retail partners of the Consortium, and are working to be in store by spring with the Fill it Forward Reusable Grocery Bag, helping shoppers track their impact and give to local charities every time they reuse.

Returnity is helping displace the use of over 20 million single-use bags and boxes with their reusable shipping and delivery packaging systems. The company has expanded its relationships with new clients, such as Zalando, while cementing long-term contracts with existing clients including Rent the Runway, Happy Returns and The Rounds. Returnity continues to advance their growth plan centered on distribution center-to-store logistics, as well as grocery delivery — two high-volume, focused applications that can be more easily aligned to reusable packaging integration. In line with its growth, the company continues to expand its team, including hiring Jeff Schwartz, formerly head of logistics partnerships at Feather, as its first director of operations.

Across the value chain, innovators, retailers and other stakeholders are embracing new solutions and exploring diverse innovations that can enable a waste-free future for retail.

2. New insights are refining bag designs to better meet market needs

Since the Beyond the Bag Challenge, ChicoBag has been working on the next iteration of its award-winning ChicoBag Original. Named ChicoBag Infinity, the new bag is a high-quality, commercially machine washable, durable and long-lasting closed-loop product that is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles. At end-of-life, this bag can be more easily reground and remanufactured into a new bag, through ChicoBag's long-standing extended producer responsibility take-back program. The ChicoBag Infinity will come in two sizes (large and small) to fit specific retailer needs.

For Domtar — a large American company that manufactures and markets wood fiber-based paper and pulp product — being among the winners of Beyond the Bag Challenge has provided further exposure and the opportunity to connect with retailers and brand owners. This enabled a deeper understanding of product performance, operational and customer needs, unlocking insights to help design a commercial bag material made for superior performance at lower weights. Domtar’s stretchable, bio-based, recyclable material made of 100 percent cellulose fiber is curbside recyclable with paper and can be compostable.

Right: Domtar's stretchable, bio-based, recyclable material; Left: Domtar's retail bag

Image courtesy of Domtar

3. Certifications are proving the potential for material circularity

PlasticFri, which designs, develops and manufactures plant-based alternatives to conventional plastics, has achieved several major milestones since being selected as a winner of the Beyond the Bag Challenge. The company received eight additional certifications and successfully passed field testing conducted by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA), as well as compliancy with ASTM D6400, conducted by Organic Waste Systems (OWS). It signed several major customer contracts, including a distribution agreement with one of the largest packaging companies in the Nordics, and Sweden’s largest online pharmacy. PlasticFri has also raised an external funding round and is raising its next round.

4. Innovators are forming partnerships, strengthening the circular retail bag ecosystem

99Bridges — the company behind Mosaic, an operating system that powers the distribution and lifecycle tracking of reusable items — has partnered with fellow Beyond the Bag Challenge winners GOATOATE and ChicoBag. Both companies are adopting Mosaic as the platform to power their reusable bag systems. 99Bridges also recently developed a new look for its Mosaic platform, as well as new apps such as the Mosaic Control Center and Mosaic Logistics Management, to help partners better manage their reusable bag operations.

5. Capital is being poured into new innovations, raising market awareness   

At the start of 2022, EON announced an initial close of a $10 million Series A, led by IMAGINARY. Alongside support from investors such as Natalie Massenet, co-founder and co-managing partner of IMAGINARY, and new clients such as Mulberry, the company has seen an increased interest in Digital ID that has led EON to take center stage at both events and in the media as a leader for smart, connected products. EON’s founder and CEO, Natasha Franck, has taken center stage at The Business of Fashion Professional Summit and The Global Fashion Summit in 2022 to discuss the necessity for connected systems. These events took place as EON was also included in a full feature on Vogue Business and in an article for Fast Company that covered the possibilities of Digital ID.

EON QR code inside of bag

Image courtesy of EON

Returnity also closed a funding round in the beginning of 2022, raising $3.1 million from Brand Foundry Ventures with additional funding from XRC Labs and others. The company aims to use the funding to expand its presence, continuing their work with global brands such as Estée Lauder, New Balance, Rent the Runway, Walmart and others to grow its operations.

This month, Sway, which innovates seaweed alternatives to plastics, closed a $2.5 million Seed round, led by Valor Siren Ventures and joined by Conservation International Ventures, Alante Capital and several other mission-aligned investors. This enabled the company to grow its team, with new hires across product and business development. Sway also continues to be recognized for their innovation, having recently been named a finalist in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. The company is preparing to pilot their packaging with fashion and home goods brands in the coming months.

What's next for the retail bag?

The progress these innovative challenge winners have made thus far points to a near future where a circular retail system is possible. Across the value chain, innovators, retailers and other stakeholders are embracing new solutions and exploring diverse innovations that can enable a waste-free future for retail. Moving forward, the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag continues to stay at the forefront of the work needed to advance a circular future for retail — accelerating innovation, collaborating with retailers, opening discussions with value chain stakeholders and sharing insights that can help guide the broader ecosystem toward a future where waste is eliminated. As innovation empowers customers to adopt new ways to bring goods home, we look forward to continued collaboration with the industry to help bring this change to scale.

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