For some time I felt annoyed when arriving at the till of my local Sainsbury’s store and was confronted with the question, ‘Do you want a bag?’ This seemed like a robotic response, no matter how much or how little I purchased.

I tried to explain how much plastic, especially one-way plastic, is polluting our oceans, however, the ladies at the till seemed not much interested. They politely agreed in principle but didn’t change their mantra, ‘Do you want a bag?’

One day I bought a single lemon and the lady at the till asked me, ‘Do you want a bag?’ (Gerhard, De Montfort University, Leicester)

One day I bought a single lemon and the lady at the till asked me, ‘Do you want a bag?’ This was more than enough and I asked for the manager. I explained my grievances to him. He explained if the girls didn’t ask the customers who arrived at the till if they wanted a bag these customers would ask for a bag after they had paid. This was a great inconvenience for the staff as they had to again open the till to take the payment of five pence for a single bag.

After this experience, I took to Twitter and eventually contacted Sainsbury’s customer service. The following is a conversation that ensued.

Any answers? Customer Relations Department? Why not train your staff to ask customers, “Have you brought your own bag?”

Sainsbury’s, Customer Relations: We are members of The UK Plastics Pact. The pact aims to change the plastic packaging system in the UK and help tackle plastic waste and keep it out of the ocean. As part of this commitment, we’ve agreed to hit a series of ambitious targets by 2025, including making 100% of our plastic reusable, recyclable or compostable. The good news is, we’re already well on our way to meeting many of those targets. Lee

Gerhard: Thank you, Lee, for getting back on this one.

I just wonder if it is Sainsbury’s policy to ask customers if they want a bag rather than customers asking if they can have a bag, or is it just my local Sainsbury’s on London Road, near Victoria Park, in Leicester.

I do believe if a bag is not pushed onto customers the usage of bags will be drastically reduced. Wouldn’t this be a good and responsible thing, namely to encourage customers to bring their own bag?

Gordo, Customer Relations: I can understand your concerns about this Gerhard. We’ll look into it further and get back to you once we have an update. Gordo

Lee, Customer Relations: Hi Gerhard! We don’t have a specific policy where colleagues must ask customers if they’d like a bag. We ask our colleagues to make a judgement based on a customer’s needs, for example, if a customer has a big shop and appears to have no bags, a colleague could ask the customer if they need any bags. Whereas if a customer arrives at the checkout with their own bags visible, we wouldn’t expect a colleague to ask them.

Where we do offer a bags to customers who’ve forgotten theirs or perhaps need more than they expected, I’d like to reassure you that these bags can be reused many times. If they do become worn or damaged they can be returned to us and we’ll exchange the 5p bag for a new replacement 5p bag so they can continue to use it on future shopping trips. Hope this helps! Lee

Sainsbury’s, Customer Relations: Thanks for contacting us recently, we hope we were able to help. Let us know how we did by completing our survey. This feedback shows us what to work on to make your life easier when contacting us.

Gerhard: Thank you at Sainsbury’s for your answer. You explained that the bag can be exchanged for another bag when worn out. This is, however, not what’s happening in real life. I have not once observed a customer exchanging a bag. Rather everyone treats these bags as a single-use bag to throw into the bin after use, mostly into general waste. I am seeing this every day. There is plenty of evidence. 5p added to the shopping bill is not really making a difference. And these bags are not bio-degradable, otherwise, we wouldn’t have this conversation.

I have visited all the major supermarkets in Leicester and not a single one is so aggressively pushing the bags as your London Road branch. I spoke with the manager and he said it is for convenience only as they would otherwise have to again open the till if customers realised they needed a bag afterwards.

I would, therefore, like to make an official complaint regarding this particular store. I have not found this aggressive bag pushing in any of your other stores. Something needs to be done.

We are living in a time of increased awareness of plastic pollution, especially of our oceans. All the nice sustainability and environmental policies at Sainsbury’s are blighted by this aggressive plastic bag pushing at one of your local stores.

Gordo, Customer Relations: Can you confirm the name of the person you spoke to Gerhard and what they exactly said to you? We’ll look into this further. Gordo

Gerhard: I do believe the majority of customers at your London Road branch are thus pushed into taking bags even though they don’t really need them. I further believe the supermarkets do have to play an educational role regarding plastic pollution. What a difference it would make asking customers ‘have you brought your own bag?’

As a direct result of this aggressive plastic bag pushing of one of your local stores, one can find Sainsbury’s orange bags everywhere in the area, in general waste bins and even in the streets. They are seen as a single use item while the charge of 5p is not even realized. By asking customers so aggressively ‘do you want a bag?’ customers assume it’s free. Even asking ‘do you want to buy a bag?’ would make a difference.

Perhaps all what is needed is to speak to the manager at your London Road branch and have the staff properly trained in this regard.

I am refraining from going public on this issue in order to give you a chance to address these points with your local branch.

Thank you, Gordo for your quick reply. I will find out the name of the manager. Regarding the staff, all of them ask ‘do you want a bag?’. They seem to have been trained like this. It has become an automatic response and the first thing when a customer approaches the till. Personally, I even placed my rucksack right in front of them, still, the robotic question is asked, ‘do you want a bag?’

Regarding what they said to me I already explained above, it’s for convenience so they don’t have to again open the till once a customer realizes they need a bag. I will find out the name of the manager.

Precisely, what he said, the manager.

Thank you again. It looks like you care. Let’s have this translated into action. ‘Have you brought your own bag?’ would be great! How educational indeed.

Making all your bags bio-degradable would, of course, solve the problem of plastic pollution, especially in the oceans.

Please see my blog in this regard:

More Plastic than Fish

Gordo, Customer Relations: No worries Gerhard. Are you able to describe the manager you spoke to about this? We’ll call the store and reinforce your concerns about this. Gordo

Gerhard: Hi Gordo

Thank you. The manager is a slim, tall, bearded Muslim man.

Be assured, as a company, we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and we are continuously attempting to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our stores – Gordo, Sainsbury’s customer relations

Gordo, Customer Relations: Thanks for confirming that Gerhard. I’ve had some difficulty calling the store so I’ve emailed them your concerns about this so they can review them internally. Be assured, as a company, we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and we are continuously attempting to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our stores. Gordo

Gerhard: Thank you Gordo.

Making some little adjustment in your London Road store will certainly reduce the plastic in that store considerably. I’m looking forward to experiencing a change, away from the ‘Do you want a bag?’ mantra. Thank you again for taking on this issue. I’ll keep you updated.

Gordo, Customer Relations: No worries Gerhard. I’m glad I was able to help. If you have any other issues, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Hope you enjoy the rest of your day! Gordo

The Orange Bag for Life goes into General Waste – A Bag for a Day

Gerhard: Here is a bit, and only a bit, of evidence that Sainsbury’s orange bags go straight into the general waste bins, not even into the recycling bags.

A ‘Bag for Life’ was initially a good idea, but it has not turned out like that anymore. They ultimately end up in landfills and the oceans. I’m sure Sainsbury’s doesn’t want to be responsible for this just because of a rough local store, which is denting Sainsbury’s good reputation on environmental issues.

Charge £5.- and the orange bags will truly become a ‘Bag for Life’. What is 5p or 10p nowadays? People won’t even bother to pick it up if they drop it.

Waitrose is leading the way with their beautiful £2.- green and recyclable ‘folding into a ball’ bag. A true lightweight gem which fits neatly in the palm of your hand, taking up hardly any space. And people do not throw such a bag in the general waste bin. I have never seen a single one thrown away. This is the way to go.

And by the way, the orange bags, which litter the streets, are only found in the area surrounding this one rogue local plastic pushing shop. Time for change. Join my petition.

Then the change happened…

Gerhard: Hi Gordo. Wow. A victory for common sense. A victory for civic engagement. It’s hard to believe a single person can make a difference, albeit small.

I went to Sainsbury’s and not a single word of ‘Do you want a bag?’. I was hiding near the shelves around the corner, no, the ‘do you want a bag?’ mantra has gone for good.

What a beautiful blog post this will be. Well done Sainsbury’s. Well done Gordo from Customer Services. A real change has happened with a few tweets by just one person. That’s a great birthday present.

Not like Leicester City Council who I petitioned for the last 6 years to put up a ‘No Fly Tipping’ sign next to our back entrance.

Thank you, Gordo!

The best customer service I have ever encountered. And not just words but results. This speaks for you and it speaks for Sainsbury’s.

A victory for common sense. A victory for civic engagement. It’s hard to believe a single person (me) can make a difference, albeit small.

Went to Sainsbury’s today and not a single word of ‘Do you want a bag’. I was hiding around the corner, no, the ‘do you want a bag’ mantra has gone for good.

Well done Sainsbury’s. Well done Gordo. A real change has happened with just a few tweets. That’s the best birthday present for me today.

Not like Leicester City Council who I petitioned for the past 6 years to put up a ‘No Fly Tipping’ sign next to our back entrance because it is a regular tipping site for so many years which attracts rats. Always excuses.

Please, Sainsbury’s give Gordo a promotion. He truly deserves it. He has not only made my day (weeks and months actually) but he has done a valuable contribution to the environment, the fight against plastic pollution and the pollution of our oceans and a contribution to sustainability as well. Moreover, he has enormously raised Sainsbury’s environmental credentials.

What a lovely comment! Gordo isn’t in today, but I will absolutely make sure to pass this along to him when I next see him, he will very much appreciate it! Luke

Just got this message, Gerhard. I’m delighted I’ve been able to help you out with this. It’s always great to have made a difference. Hope you enjoy the rest of your weekend! Gordo

Sainsbury’s, Customer Relations: Thanks for getting in touch with us, so that we can help as quickly as possible, can you choose one of the options below…

News Update 4/12/18

Unfortunately, Sainsbury’s change of heart did not last long and now we are almost back at square one. The till mantra ‘Do you Want a Bag’ is back again. Perhaps I also became more ambitious in the meantime of wanting to see a change beyond the ‘Do you Want a Bag’ for customers who did some shopping beyond a single lemon. Moreover, I discovered that other local Sainsbury’s stores do exactly the same thing, namely asking customers if they wanted a bag, perhaps not for a single lemon, but the same mantra is present throughout. It became obvious that any possible change had to come from much higher up in Sainsbury’s command structure. What I really want to see is that Sainsbury’s make an educational commitment to their customers and the environment in general by asking at the checkout, ‘Have you brought a Bag’ or ‘Have you Brought your own Bag’. This may encourage customers to think about bringing their recyclable bag and about plastic pollution.

I have therefore started my first ever petition on the 38  Degrees website. The challenge is now to reach people.

In the meantime, I keep collecting images of discarded Sainsbury’s orange ‘Bags for Life’, which end up in the bin or elsewhere in the environment such as streets etc. I intend to make a collage of them and will post it on this blog.

I have also published a short survey on my Twitter account, but have not enough exposure to have some meaningful interaction, – yet.

Bag for a Day