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Report Details Closed Loop's Reusable Bag Pilot Involving Three Major Retailers

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About 100 billion plastic bags are used each year in the U.S. alone, with less than 10 percent of them recycled, by multiple industry accounts. The amassing waste is too great for any one entity, whether retail chain or other, to tackle. Having positive environmental impact will require collaboration among retailers and other partners along the supply chain, as this is a systematic problem. This is a recurring message in a new report released by Closed Loop Partners.

About 100 billion plastic bags are used each year in the U.S. alone, with less than 10 percent of them recycled, by multiple industry accounts.

The amassing waste is too great for any one entity, whether retail chain or other, to tackle. Having positive environmental impact will require collaboration among retailers and other partners along the supply chain, as this is a systematic problem. This is a recurring message in a new report released by Closed Loop Partners, which contains findings and insight from a multi-retailer pilot it facilitated, which tested an alternative to the single-use plastic bag:  reusable bags. They were offered to customers across nine CVS Health, Target, and Walmart stores for 10 weeks.

The report, “Beyond the Plastic Bag,” details feedback from customers who tried out the bags, as well as from participating retailers. It explores strategies to scale reuse models and offers insight in areas from material selection to how to get used bags back.

Customers could sign up to “borrow” a bag to use many times over before returning it at the same or a different brand’s store (which was washed and redistributed). They got financial incentives to bring them back, as well as reminders, and other strategies were employed to simplify transitioning to this new system.

Among findings on the customer engagement front are that “emotional” storytelling (appealing to needs rather than just providing information); clear, simple messaging; incentives; and ease of the reuse process are key to getting buy in.

Leading with “why” to reuse was more effective than explaining how to do it.

Prioritize solutions that target awareness at checkout, as this is typically when shoppers first think about their need for a bag. As important, the report concludes, is visibly placing messaging and signage throughout the store.

The process must be as easy as what customers have grown accustomed to with single-use bags, as requirements to search for instructions, learn new behaviors, and navigate new processes are deterrents. This new option should require minimal time to learn about or sign up for. And returns need to be painless, with accessible drop-off points, instant confirmation of return, and quick receipt of the reward so customers know that no more action is required of them.

Another telling finding was around perceived value of the bag.

Interestingly, customers generally were skeptical of free offerings. And realized value was also tied to the level of effort to participate in the service.

Incentives for customers are a key strategy, with two main types:  financial such as purchase discounts and knowing they can help affect positive change.

“Financial rewards may be more broadly motivating — this is what most shoppers are ‘looking for’ at retail. But the value of reducing negative environmental impact is also highly motivating for customers to reuse,” the report authors state.

There’s the question: should apps/digital technology be leveraged in these models? The conclusion: digital experiences can be useful to motivate reuse and returns, for instance with push notifications or setting up reminders to return the bag using calendar features. Though use of such technology should not be required for participation.

The report also explores logistics and management of the bags.

Among key takeaways: collections should be streamlined, for instance bundling bag pick up and drop offs to reduce costs and environmental impact. And distribution centers should prioritize optimization strategies and tools, for example consolidating batches and distribution routes, and encouraging shared structures around inventory management.

Partnerships across the value chain directly impact the sustainability of reuse. Retailers should work with washing partners and cleaning agents, delivery and data storage partners that manage greenhouse gas emissions, and material suppliers sourcing from responsibly managed sustainable resources, the authors advise.

Material selection is important to lowering environmental footprint. Calculations of energy consumption entailed in material extraction, materials’ durability, recoverability, and its recyclability are considerations to guide design and production choices.  

Sheryl Burke, senior vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for CVS Health, weighed in on the chain’s pilot experience, stating in the report: “Through partnerships … and buy-in from our customers, the Beyond the Bag pilots provided critical data-driven analysis on the role that reuse models could play in plastic waste mitigation when thoughtfully designed and their impact successfully measured. We still have a lot to learn collectively, but we’re thrilled to continue our journey towards a more circular future for retail.”

Pilot participant Target is plodding ahead too.  “We’re applying what we learned to identify bag options that are best for our guests, propelling more circular systems throughout retail,” says Amanda Nusz, senior vice president of Corporate Responsibility for Target & president of the Target Foundation.

More insight was provided around how to scale, with a main conclusion being that the interplay among different retail brands will be important to driving far-reaching reuse behavior. This concept was tested during the pilot, whereby customers could borrow a reusable bag (carrying logos for each brand) from one store and drop it off at another retailer.

Other suggestions around this “retailer interplay’ concept are universal reuse rewards across stores; unified messaging and signage; and consistent branding (such as placing each retail chain’s logo on the bag).

Learnings from the bag pilot extend beyond this one packaging type, according to Kate Daly, managing director, Center for the Circular Economy Closed Loop Partners.

“They can help guide us toward a future in which reusing valuable materials and products in our economy becomes the commonsense norm,” she says.

The call out to retailers: they are not only positioned to drive down plastic waste, but they can also engage around an issue in a way that strengthens their involvement with the communities they serve.

Say the authors: “We hope this work inspires and invites others across all industries to engage in collaborative and integrated efforts to effectively move the needle on social and environmental challenges.”

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