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Paper, plastic or neither? Inside the collaboration to reinvent the shopping bag

Shopping bags
Erik Mclean/Unsplash

Replacing the single-use shopping bag may be one of the most complex sustainability challenges of our time.

At GreenBiz’s Circularity 20 virtual conference last week, sustainability leaders from Target, Walmart and CVS came together to discuss how they are planning to do just that, and why working together despite being competitors is critical to achieving success.

Their initiative, which launched last month, is called "Beyond the Bag" — a $15 million, three-year commitment to developing, testing and implementing an innovative replacement for single-use retail bags. The project, led in collaboration with managing firm Closed Loop Partners and a few other nonprofit and private members, aims to redesign the way customers get goods from store to home.

"It’s great to think of a slightly better bag, but the real excitement is when you are open to a transformative idea and a way that hasn’t been thought of," said Amanda Nusz, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Target, during the Circularity 20 session.

The consortium’s goal is to develop a range of solutions to fit consumer needs, including innovations in materials, delivery options and recovery after use.

Having different perspectives, different people with different backgrounds … that’s where you get true innovation.

But driving such immense, industry-wide change is no easy task. No company is equipped to do it alone. The panelists stressed that the transformation will require a new approach founded in precompetitive collaboration, one that brings diverse voices to the project, signals new needs to suppliers and spreads the core message to consumers.

For that reason, the project plans to involve a broad range of consumers, innovators and stakeholders in the development process. "Having different perspectives, different people with different backgrounds … that’s where you get true innovation," said Jane Ewing, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart.

The panelists noted that any alternatives the consortium creates will need to match the functionality and convenience of current options on the market as well as minimize any unintended consequences along the way.

By collectively standing against single-use bags, each company hopes to establish a new normal in retail.

"Our collective approach sends an important, unified message of commitment," said Eileen Howard Boone, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy at CVS. "[It] sends a signal to suppliers and innovators of how closely together we are standing to make sure that we see some change."

Any solution will require work in areas of consumer awareness and education, the panelists said.

"There is a lot of education that has to happen," Boone said. "Part of the benefit of this collaborative is that there will be more voices pushing out the same conversation."

Moderating the session, Kate Daly, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, highlighted the unique position of the retail giants to create "ripple effects" for smaller businesses in the retail industry. Addressing the speakers, she noted: "You’re opening up the market for these innovations, you are doing the heavy lift of testing them and de-risking them, and that makes that available to the ecosystem."

For retailers that want to join this initiative or take on a similar one themselves, the panelists offered several key pieces of advice. Primarily, they stressed that companies must clearly identify what problem they are trying to solve, seek allies that have a shared vision and engage a broad set of stakeholders to drive innovation.

Daly also encouraged anyone with ideas or innovations for Beyond the Bag to reach out to her directly.

Amidst their hopeful tone, the panelists underscored that the road to plastic-free shopping will be long and complex. "These issues aren’t one-time, short-term solutions," Boone put simply. "They are going to take a lot of time to course correct."

How much time? We will have to wait and see. Based on the conversation, the more that customers and companies collaborate to drive innovation and push for change, the better the chance for collective success. "Now, coming together with others and bringing more people to the table,” Boone said, “the art of possible has grown very, very large."

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