The environmental crusade against plastic shopping bags in this country began in earnest last year when Toronto established a bylaw forcing all local retailers to charge five cents per bag. Since then other cities have waded in—Fort McMurray, Alta., recently approved a full-scale ban—and some retailers, including Ikea and Home Depot, have implemented the Toronto fee country-wide. Yet any suggestion the end to giveaway bags would become a national trend appears to have fizzled. And now the biggest promoter of bag fees faces an awkward climb-down over obvious customer dissatisfaction.
On April 22—Earth Day, 2009—the country’s largest grocer, Loblaw Co. Ltd., implemented the five-cent bag fee in all its stores across Canada as part of a larger plan to burnish its “green” credentials. At the time, Loblaw senior vice-president of corporate affairs, Inge van den Berg, told Maclean’s the fee was a way of “incentivizing good habits. It’s a gentle reminder because I think customers really want to take the right action to protect the environment.”
But some shoppers aren’t so keen on being incentivized. This past December, Loblaw-owned stores in Atlantic Canada, including Atlantic Superstore and Dominion, temporarily waived the five-cent fee as a Christmas gift to customers. That change was recently made permanent; the bags are once again free. “The Atlantic region is unique,” says Julija Hunter, vice-president of public relations for Loblaw. “We are mindful of our business environment and the fact consumers have other options.”
While major competitor Sobeys mimicked Loblaw’s bag fee in Ontario and Quebec, it never implemented the charge anywhere else for competitive reasons. And so East Coast shoppers irritated at having to pay for bags appear to be choosing Sobeys over Atlantic Superstore. If the bag fee was born out of concern for the environment, its demise is due to unhappy customers and a concern for the bottom line.