For ecologists, shopping is in the bag

There's paper. There's plastic. Then there's the $960 reusable Hermes shopping bag.

Originally designed for discerning Europeans, it hits America this summer, and if it sounds like an exotic fluke, consider the new $843 grocery tote by Italian designer Consuelo Castiglioni of Marni.

Or the $495 organic cotton canvas shopper, due out in June from Stella McCartney.

Or the now-famous I'm Not a Plastic Bag by the British handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, which has been selling at more than 10 times its $15 price on eBay.

Or even the latest addition to Trader Joe's lineup: a bright blue-and-green print polypropylene supermarket sack that has been flying off the shelves at $1.99.

In a confluence of politics, eco-consciousness, fashion and global commerce, yet another great, green notion appears poised for mainstream consideration: the bring-your-own shopping bag. Until recently, those sturdy cloth totes that are common in Europe were mostly confined in this country to farmers markets and health food co-ops (and even there, only in the sternest, oat-iest styles and colors). Now, whether they are chic and pricey or cheap and cheerful, they are vehicles for a range of self-expression.

Part of the impetus is environmental. Among the ecologically minded, the paper-or-plastic question is an evergreen dilemma. Paper bags mean dead trees and paper-factory pollution, but most plastic bags are derived from petroleum and create litter that clogs landfills and takes as long as a thousand years to decompose.

Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to ban the use of nonbiodegradable plastic grocery bags. Since then, cities from Boston to Berkeley, Calif., have taken up similar proposals. Los Angeles County is studying options ranging from an outright ban to better education on recycling; the city of Los Angeles is considering a pilot program with the state in which grocery chains would distribute reusable, subsidized canvas totes.

But the trend toward reusable shopping bags also has gotten a push from the fashion industry, particularly in Europe, where consumers tend to grocery-shop daily and laws encourage bag reuse &

and where designers have seized on the old-style tote bag like stylists going to work on an aging hippie in a beauty salon.

A spokeswoman for Hermes, for example, said that their new Silky Pop, a hand-wrought silk tote that collapses into a wallet-size pouch of calfskin, was intended as a high-end alternative to the extra fold-up shopping bag that many European women already carry in their purses. ("Say you're out walking. You decide to pick up a few apples, you pull out your bag," she explained, then quickly added: "Though obviously, Hermes clients usually aren't shopping for their own groceries.")

The new Stella McCartney organic canvas shopper is an expression of the designer's eco-consciousness and a luxury handbag, according to her spokeswoman. Castiglioni said her foldable nylon bag was inspired by the desire to discourage the use of plastic and by her upbringing: "Reusable shopping bags are common in the Italian food shopping tradition," she explained via e-mail.

Meanwhile, the I'm Not a Plastic Bag, a canvas shopping bag bearing the aforementioned saying, grew out of a 2004 campaign by a London nonprofit to persuade the public there to make small lifestyle changes to benefit the environment. The campaign,, asked consumers to reduce the number of plastic bags they were using and recruited Hindmarch, a luxury handbag designer, to create a fashionable alternative for shoppers. The bag sold out within days of its debut.

This month's Vogue mentions all four in a call to arms of sorts, urging fashionistas to become more bag-wise: "No loitering, girls," contributing editor Sarah Mower exhorted. "Today, let us go out and harness the power of fashion to change the way the nation shops. One stylish act of rebellion in supermarkets, delis, drugstores and designer emporiums and at market stalls is all it takes: Say no to plastic bags. Whip out your own brilliant alternative. Make people stare. Break a habit. Set a trend."

Whether consumers in the U.S. will obey is another question. Plastic bags are taxed in Ireland. British supermarket customers are commonly rewarded with small prizes and discounts for bringing their own bags or recycling old ones. A plastic bag ban goes into effect later this year in Paris, with the rest of France to follow by 2010.

But the U.S. isn't Europe. Tote bags brim from the nation's closets and clutter the nation's doorknobs, and most Americans still find it inconvenient to haul them back and forth to the supermarket.

"I've got teenagers," said Andy DeVilling, vice president of sales for Superbag, a major plastic bag manufacturer in Texas, who believes that recycling is a better answer. "I just don't know how I'm going to take 10 or 12 reusable bags to the grocery store once a week."

Nonetheless, the hope, among activists and designers, is that Americans might consider even a small shift in the habits that are driving nearly 90 percent of the market to take purchases home in disposable plastic. (That's 19 billion castoff plastic bags a year in California alone.)

At Trader Joe's near Orange County's Crystal Cove in Southern California, 33-year crew member Mike McGrath said he had seen a noticeable increase in personal bag use &

possibly driven, he added, by the store's monthly raffle that awards a $50 gift certificate to customers who bring their own totes. In nearby Corona del Mar, a stand near the Albertsons checkout counter was offering reusable brown store-brand bags, 10 for $10; checkers there said customers are using them more and more.

"We want to help humanity kick the single-use bag habit," joked Andy Keller, a former software salesman from Chico, Calif., whose $4.99 pocket-size ChicoBags have been selling briskly at Bristol Farms and other outlets. Although the gem-colored collapsible bags moved slowly at first, he said, they have since taken off as more stores have begun to stock them and schools and nonprofits have picked them up as novelty fundraising items.

It hasn't hurt, he added, that initiatives like the one in San Francisco have raised consciousness or that Oprah Winfrey suggested reusable bags on a recent environment-themed program.

"It must be some kind of tipping point," Keller said. "We're seeing, like, a 30 percent growth in sales since the beginning of the year, month over month."

Boutique owner Ron Herman, one of a handful of American merchants who'll be carrying the U.S. version of Hindmarch's I'm Not a Plastic Bag when it arrives this summer, is similarly upbeat. Herman said he pre-sold more than 100 in less than 20 minutes to his e-mail customers last week.

And Wendy Bryan, a West L.A. graphic designer, promises that reusing bags can pay off. She recently won her local Trader Joe's bring-your-own-bag raffle &

and hers wasn't even a Hermes. "Just an old 'I Love New York' bag with this really dumb underwater scene on one side," she said.

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