How many plastic shopping bags do you think are used in Britain each year? Want to take a guess? Ten million? One hundred million? To give you an idea of the magnitude of this problem, I'm putting it as figures; in England alone it's 8,000,000,000 - eight billion - and that's just in one year.
Next year, the Government is introducing a plastic bag tax in England, to discourage their use. After the general election in 2015, supermarkets and large stores will have to charge customers 5p for plastic bags, the proceeds from which will go to charity. A similar tax will commence in Scotland in October this year. Wales and Northern Ireland already have a tax in place - and Wales since 2011 - and bag usage has fallen by 75-80 per cent as a result. France, Italy and some other countries have banned non-biodegradable plastic bags completely.
Why is this an important issue? Plastic bags are often used for just a few minutes before being thrown away. Many of them litter our streets and countryside, costing taxpayers millions of pounds to clear up and dispose of in landfill sites. According to Friends of the Earth, we spend £650 million a year burying and burning waste that could be recycled - what a waste!
Plastic bags are also dangerous to wildlife, especially at sea. Whales, for instance, take in large mouthfuls of water as they feed - one recently died an agonising death after being stranded on a beach; its stomach was found to be tightly packed with six square metres of plastic. Sea-turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, while birds get them trapped in their beaks, often starving because they can't twist their way out of the entangling plastic. Conservationists estimate that 100,000 birds and mammals, and millions of fish, die each year because of what one biologist recently described as "the most abundant detritus of civilisation".
What does all this mean for us as retailers? Well, we're partly responsible! At present the bag tax in England will not apply to retailers with fewer than 250 employees, which may include most readers of this article. However, we have a choice. Some retailers have already introduced a charge for bags, and customers, rather than being dismayed by this, often applaud them for taking such a responsible step - we all know that we can carry a shopping bag with us if we want to!
Sales of re-usable bags are already on the increase and are likely to grow massively next year. Shared Earth in York reports wholesale sales doubling on its hardy jute bags, which are made in India, have attractive designs and are cheap. It also provides bespoke bags, which over 20 independent retailers have ordered. They can either be sold at a normal profit margin or at a reduced price to promote one's business. It's always good to see shoppers around town carrying one of your bags, and if it's a sustainable bag, used many times, it's probably a far better use of one's promotional budget than putting adverts in local papers.
Plastic bags are just one example of our throw-away society. As retailers we should try, if we can, to stock products which don't use massive amounts of unnecessary packaging, and which are made from sustainable materials. To have a reputation as a responsible retailer, which cares about the world and isn't just trying to make as much money as possible, is something which is invaluable when it comes to building customer loyalty and a sustainable business.
Jeremy Piercy is the Founder and MD of Shared Earth, a fair trade business which began in 1986. T: +44 (0)1904 632 896 or visit www.sharedearth.co.uk