How green is my supermarket (and other shopping)?

In my earlier posts on the matter, both here and on my other blog, I wondered aloud about whether, and when a leading store might have the gumption to impose penalties on customers for asking for plastic bags instead of rewarding them for re-using plastic bags or using their own shopping bags.

Earlier experiences with ‘penalties’ was the Republic of Ireland’s highly successful introduction of a plastic bag tax of sorts, which not only reduced drastically the use of plastic bags but also raised considerable revenue. Suggesting something like this in the UK when in the last 10 years of Labour, people have increasingly paid more and more direct and stealth taxes – and please don’t cite statistics to me, because I am making an experiential observation here about how prices of key goods have gone up and up although my shopping basket has not changed much – would have been political suicide for New Labour.

So we waited for the supermarkets and retailers to innovate. Many of them have long offered reusable bags, or ‘bags for life’ as Tesco calls theirs, including the Co-op’s fairtrade cotton bags for 99p.

But in punitive measures – as if going to Ikea is not punishment enough – last year Ikea in the UK reportedly started charging 5p per bag, reducing their use by 95%; Ikea now gives its customers biodegradable corn-starch bags for 10p… (Please do let me know when you have figured out that maths!)

Today Marks and Spencer has announced a trial run in Northern Ireland for their new plans to charge customers 5p for each plastic bag they take. The success of the trials may lead to national roll-out later in the year.

M&S is not the front runner in this but it is indeed a very interesting development.

Unless you particularly like Ikea’s meatballs or anything else in their value-for-money restaurants – you may not go to Ikea every other day. So the impact of their plastic bag charge is only felt by their customers when they are in the market for furniture or kitchen utensils etc, which is not everyday. But to M&S (or similar in your area), one might go more frequently. They have a popular, if somewhat pricey, food hall and they also do lunch products such as sandwiches. In other words, food is different from furniture.

The trial scheme in Northern Ireland should be one to watch. M&S’s customers are not amongst the UK’s least wealthy, so the outcome will depend on whether or not they are price sensitive to the 5p levy.

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