Tuesday, November 06, 2007

(Sand)Bagging Supermarkets

There's more today on the Speaker's sojourn over to Whole Foods yesterday. As the NY Sun reports: 'The City Council's proposed plastic bags recycling program is getting a boost from big business and a political bigwig, with superstore Whole Foods and a niece of the president, Lauren Bush, getting behind the plan."

What concerns us here, is the fact that the proposed legislation was crafted without any input from the city's retail food industry-but did receive considerable advice from plastic industry reps who have no local businesses in New York. This makes no sense.

If the speaker feels that the recycling of plastic bags is so important that it needs to be located in the city's retail stores, than she should have looked for feedback from an industry that not only employs tens of thousands of New Yorkers, but is being burdened into oblivion by high taxes and onerous regulations.

Instead, she uses Whole Foods, an upscale, non-union and unrepresentative store, for a photo-op on the proposed law. Why not try to use a 5,000 superette in East Harlem? According to the Daily Politics yesterday, the speaker did seek another supermarket for the event; there were, however, no sacrificial lambs willing to step forward.

But can you blame these stores, who weren't informed about the law beforehand, for not wishing to be made a prop for legislation that most don't look forward to? So the speaker went to Whole Foods where the plastic bag recycling was presented as a snap by company representatives, a fantasy that we rebutted for the News: "Whole Foods has run a plastic bag recycling program for 25 years. It’s no burden, said Christina Minardi, Whole Food’s regional president. But Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance said Whole Foods can afford its recycling because it deals in "high- markup goods."

This Whole Foods fantasy is given credence in the Sun story when the company tells the paper, "...businesses "must assume their share of responsibility" in protecting the environment. According to Ms. Minardi, Whole Foods already recycles plastic bags and even pays customers 10 cents for each returned bag, which adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year." With plastic grocery bags fetching around 1/5 of a penny on the recycling market, well, you do the math here

So the company that makes a fortune selling arugula, and can spread hundreds of thousands of dollars around to encourage upscale consumers to recycle, is now an exemplar for small supermarkets in the South Bronx where 99% of the customers have never heard of arugula, and where if you tried to sell the stuff at Whole Foods prices you'd be out of business in a week. As we told the Sun; "A lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, Richard Lipsky, has a different view of the plan. He said large businesses like Whole Foods "can afford to spread goodwill," and are not representative of small businesses that he says would lose revenue complying with the recycling program."

This entire discussion has begun to have an otherworldly quality to it. Pat Brodhagen, who represents the Food Industry Alliance, a trade group for the supermarket industry, even found a way to be supportive of the bill before she canvassed her members. As she told the NY Times: "It’s important for folks to understand that plastic bags are ubiquitous, and that everyone who uses them needs to be invested in them. Given this new attention to bags and the environment, of all the positions that have been floated, the notion of recycling them is the most intelligent, in our view.” She said a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags — as San Francisco has enacted — would not work in New York."

No mention here about the regulatory burden, just an acquiescence to what we like to call "speaker inevitability," or making the best of a bad situation. This kind of stance, however, does a disservice to the industry-particularly the smallest retailers that the FIA often fails to represent as assiduously as it does the larger markets. There's a need for greater honesty in the debate ahead.