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Mystery Surrounds New Whole Foods Reusable Bag

Whole Foods A Better Bag (photo: www.made-in-china.com)

When I started this story last month, I never expected a standard interview request with a designer to turn into a bureaucratic two-step that took us to China and back.

Austin-based Whole Foods Market officially phased out the use of plastic shopping bags on Earth Day last week.

In December Whole Foods announced their intention to eliminate plastic bags and unveiled their new reusable bag called “A Better Bag.”  Following that announcement we reached out to the bag’s designer to learn more about the design and concept behind this colorful new bag.

The response we received may be an indication of just how important reusable bags are becoming for Whole Foods.

The colorful bags are quickly becoming the primary reusable bag the company sells, and their customers are embracing them thanks to their bright fun design, durability, low price and unique look and feel.

Perhaps an indicator of their popularity is the fact they are even selling on eBay.

A Better Bag was designed internally by Whole Foods staff who work on the company’s branded products.  The bag’s graphic design depicts blues and greens and a fresh cut apple.  Sustainable is Good attempted to obtain information on the bag’s artwork for this story.  However the bag’s designer was unable to answer any questions, citing a strict non-disclosure policy Whole Foods maintains with its employees.

Sustainable is Good contacted the Whole Foods corporate office in March for information on the bag for our story.  Initially we were turned down, being told the company doesn’t speak to “trade publications.”  After some follow up we were then informed a “rare exception” was made at the approval of the director of PR for Whole Foods – the company would participate in our story.

We submitted several questions to the company on the design and concept of the bag and also sought information on consumer reactions.

Then began a back and forth process that in the PR world can only be described as odd.  Weeks passed with no information, then “availability” issues cropped up and more time passed; finally the company’s participation in the story came to an end last week over supply concerns.

In an email a Whole Foods spokeswoman told Sustainable is Good, “We won’t be able to help on this story due to the reasons that I described earlier. As we had discussed, we were making an exception with your website as we know you do great work.  However, since we don’t know when our supply issues will be resolved, our team has opted to not go through with the story.”

Throughout the more than one month process to obtain basic information on the new bag, it was never clear exactly what any of the issues raised had to do with the design and concept of the bag.   It is also not known why the director agreed to participate in the story with these apparently severe supply issues looming.

Following this angle, Sustainable is Good spoke to regional sources who indicated they were unaware of any supply issues affecting the availability of the bags in their regions.

Where is the bag made and what makes it unique?

We were also able to establish where the bags are made and obtain information on what makes these bags unique within the reusable bag world.

The bags are made in the busy city of Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province.  The city is booming with companies making reusable bags and nearly everything else imaginable for the U.S. market.  We also learned the reusable bag industry in China is riddled with misinformation over environmental claims and there is intense competition over U.S contracts.

Based on publicly available trade information we were able to establish Charrmy Industries Co., Limited appears to be involved in the production of the Whole Foods bags.  In fact, the company’s web site proudly displays images of the bag.

What makes the Whole Foods bag different is the original artwork, design and high quality materials.

Most of the Whole Foods bag is made from 100% post-consumer rPET (plastic bottles) material.  The tag that comes with the bag states 80% of the bag is made from rPET.   rPET material is quickly becoming the choice for high quality reusable bags destined for the U.S. market, because of its post-consumer recycled properties and its durability.

The Whole Foods Better Bag goes a step further by adding an outer layer of Oriented Polypropylene (OPP) film.  This material provides its unique look and texture as well as the ability to print high quality colorful artwork.  OPP is an excellent material for printing – for example the popular book Cradle to Cradle by the MBDC co-founders is made of OPP as are ReProduct greeting cards.

By adding the outer OPP layer Whole Foods was able to take a reusable bag and make it fun and exciting for customers.

Aren’t reusable bags for the greater good?

All of these points are interesting, innovative and exciting.  So why then did Whole Foods agree to participate in the story, and then over a month later back out?  Wouldn’t the company want to share its creative design work and innovative bag with its customers?

The piece that Whole Foods is missing here is consumer interest; people are actually quite concerned with things like this.  People see these fun new bags in the stores, they see the store aggressively pushing them it’s not hard to see how interest is generated. Plus it’s a known fact eco-conscious consumers value design and innovation.

Reusable bags are designed to reduce waste and better the planet for everyone.  With that idea in mind you would think Whole Foods would be open about their new bag design and do anything they could to promote it and encourage others to follow in their footsteps and create their own.

After all if more people embrace and use reusable bags and have access to bags that are fun and fashionable, then it stands to reason an increasingly significant dent can be made in the reduction of plastic bag waste, right?

Is this more about protecting the design of a reusable bag than encouraging more people to use them?  That’s a fair question.

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