A customer doesn't like our 'no plastic bag' policy. Considerable disagreement ensues. By Kate
And so, inevitably, it is December. Traditionally, the month of epic scale disaster at Green & Blue. Litigation. Withdrawal of funding. Complete collapse of faulty drains. Jude’s Stroke.
All things that have happened in December. And who knew fate was waiting in the wings to ensure that December 2010 was not only no exception, but that it was going to deliver the most crushing blow yet, albeit on a much more personal level.
So, all of this means that I am in No Mood and when the below email popped into my inbox last night, it did not take me very long to decide that I was going to respond completely honestly. Not temper what I wrote in the interests of PR or customer relations even slightly.
Quite apart from being in No Mood, some things are just more important than retaining a customer.
My wife visited your store on Monday 13th Dec.She bought two bottles of wine.Your staff informed her that you "do not do bags". “really?”. “yes no bags for customers, they must carry multiple wine purchases with bear hands.” Can you name another shop in ED that doesn't do bags?"Oh no probs I'll put that fish in my pocket, yeah cheers". "Ah, what a fine cheese, thanks, I'll stick that under my hat". "MMmm locally grown tomatoes, perfect, I'll fling them on the floor of my car".How is one meant to transport two bottles of wine home when already laden? Do you only serve customers who have premeditated their purchase? What the heck would one do with three bottles of wine - slip one down the trouser leg?Do you really believe that a bag is an environment-damaging indulgence? Should perhaps you turn the heat down 2C and ask customers to wear a jumper? Or maybe send your bagless staff over to France on bicycles - saving untold quantities of delivery CO2. Better still, don’t sell foreign wine! I certainly hope you don’t have any mineral water in stock.
There’s a fine line between true eco responsibility and bad science. As a shop selling heavy breakable objects with no means of transport, I do believe your “no bag” stance errs on the side of the ridiculous. And sorry, a £2 hessian sack is not a reasonable alternative. If one already owns such a planet-saving holdall, buying another unnecessarily is many times more wasteful than using a few grams of recycled polythene/paper in an emergency.
And this was my response :-
Dear Mr X
Thank you so much for taking the time to email us concerning your wife's visit yesterday.
We have not given out bags for 3 years now and yours is the first such complaint that we have received. Perhaps this has much to do with a fairly high profile local campaign launched about 6 months after we took this decision. The SNUB (Say No to Unwanted Bags) campaign (you may have seen people carrying the hessian shopping bags with this logo) was partly funded by Southwark council and was highly effective.
I am afraid that you are really quite wrong in your thinking that plastic bags are NOT an environment damaging indulgence. There is a wealth of information available on the damage that these do, both in their manufacture and the disposal of them.
You are also, I am afraid, quite wrong in your fairly muddled assertion that it somehow is more environmentally damaging to buy another cloth bag than to use a plastic bag.
I am not going to send you all the facts on the damage these do here, just the ones I feel are most salient :-
- Approximately 60 - 100 million barrels of oil are required to make the world's plastic bags every year and this fact alone means that if we banned plastic bags in the UK, it would be equivalent to taking 18,0000 cars off the road every year.
- Most of these bags take, at a conservative estimate, 400 years to break down although some think that is more likely to be 1,000 years. At this rate, humanity may not be around to find out.
- When you consider that in China alone, 3 billion plastic bags are used every day and then you consider the above fact, that adds up to an awful lot of space on the planet becoming steadily ever more clogged up with disposable plastic bags.
Every single one of us are living in a time when it is imperative that we examine our choices as human beings and as consumers. Those that don't will have such examination thrust upon them whether they like it or not as energy prices continue to rise and problems with food and water shortages (affecting the manufacture of food, among other things) become the norm.
Running a business in such an environment is fraught as by its very nature, commerce often goes against principles of sustainability. We have always been passionate though about trying to work out ways of doing this, hence our commitment to smaller producers who do not work in ways with damage the planet. Our food is sourced with a similar ethos and we have installed as many energy saving measures as we can in our shop and bar.
And no, we most certainly do not serve mineral water. We have a very smart filtration system installed and we do not charge anything for the water that comes from it.
I have no wish to further alienate you but I am afraid that our stance is resolute and unapologetic. If people cannot be bothered to consider all of the above and take the utterly simple step of carrying cloth bags (which roll up very neatly and can be popped into any other larger bag) with them, then they have no one to blame but themselves if they can't get their purchases home. As a business, we refuse to be involved in a hugely irresponsible and wasteful procedure (the offering of plastic bags) to compensate for lazy or forgetful behavior.
As a goodwill gesture for taking the time to make your thoughts known (we always think that this is valuable even if, as in your case, we disagree completely with the entire contents of your email), I would be delighted to offer you a bottle of very responsibly produced wine. You don't seem to be a regular customer as our plastic ban is now 3 years old and you were clearly unaware of it, but perhaps we can give you something which will change your mind.
You will however need to bring your own bag when you come to collect it.
Very best wishes
5 hours later, I received this :-
Thank you for your prompt response. I must admit I am finding it quite amusing to be called lazy and forgetful after spending £40 on two bottles of wine at your store. You are mistaken in your judgement that we are not regular customers - I do shop fairly frequently with you, usually on Saturdays when I actually have a bag with me for a planned shopping trip.
That was not the case last night on my way home from work, already laden with a handbag and laptop case. I needed a bag, and your shop would not provide one. I don't have any problem with your policy of not supplying plastic bags. But you could supply paper bags, or use old plastic bags rather than new ones, like a charity shop does for example. There needs to be a practical solution when a customer comes into your shop without a bag! Either that or there should be a clear sign at the till saying that you won't supply a bag, so that the customer can back out of the purchase before it's too late.
You are not living in the real world if you think every person in East Dulwich carries a hessian sack folded up in their pocket/handbag at all times, whether they are planning on going shopping or not. It's your decision, but a smug policy like this will not make yours the shop of choice when you're on your way home from work and want to buy a couple of bottles of wine but realise you don't have anything to carry them home in. Certainly not with Bossman and Nicolas down the road.
And so I responded with this :-
Dear Mrs X
Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my email. I have now also had the time to talk to the team at the shop who remember the transaction with you and remember that both a cloth bag and a box were offered, so you were not expected to somehow struggle with two bottles, completely unaided, as the tone of both your husband’s and your email would suggest. Please note that while we have to charge for the cloth bags, we charge the price we pay for them, so these are not a source of profit for us.
Paper bags are not an option for us either as heavy bottles of wine simply don’t work with most of them and the re-inforced, larger paper bags are not only prohibitively expensive, but are also hugely wasteful for smaller purchases. We also don’t keep other plastic bags in the shop because, as explained at length in my previous email, we feel incredibly strongly about the use of disposable plastic bags and simply will not be involved in the use of them in any capacity.
As also alluded to in my previous email, this is a difficult time to run a business for all sorts of reasons, not least the juggling act between trying to be as sustainable and ethical as possible while still turning enough profit to keep viable. While there are some aspects we can do nothing about, staying completely true to what we believe in other areas is something that we are passionate about. Perhaps you don’t think it is the role of a local business to ‘educate’ or lecture its customers in the dangers of plastic bag abuse but our point of view is that given the crisis facing the planet, no opportunity should be lost in a personal or professional sphere, ever. Every one of us in every way possible has to continue to do what they can and this is one of the things that we have been doing for a while now.
As just to clarify the other points raised in your email, we had a sign by the till for the first 18 months of the plastic bag ban but eventually took that down as there was no longer any need for it. Finally, while I would accept without argument an accusation of being hectoring or willfully non commercial or amazingly poor at customer relations given both our stance and my response to your correspondence (and I’m afraid I remain unapologetic on all counts) I fail entirely to understand how you perceive any of this to be ‘smug’.
I think you would be hard pressed to find a wine business that works as hard at we do at sourcing and selling the kind of hand made wines you will find at Green & Blue. The very hard work then continues in hand selling them and in all the education that we do around them, not to mention how much energy goes into making our bar a friendly, value for money location for the local community. Our entire team, myself included, could have an easier life and make considerably more money doing something else but we do this because we all believe in it.
There is no time to be smug and frankly, the realities of running a small business in the current climate mean that there are also absolutely no aspects which one can feel smug about, even if there was the time.
Ultimately, the decision as to how much one alters one’s behaviour in the interests of treading lightly on the earth is an entirely personal one. As is the decision to buy your wine from Nicholas or Bossman. If the trade off for keeping your custom is dabbling again in the murky world of plastic then I’m afraid that the price is too high for us but the offer of a conciliatory bottle still stands should you wish to re-consider your position.
I hope you and your husband have a good Christmas season,
We shall see. I am not anticipating discovering that Green & Blue have instigated a fundamental change in the plastic bag use of the X household but you never know. Perhaps in 2010, finally, we will have a Christmas miracle.