Carrier bag data reveals varying approaches to CSR among Britain’s supermarkets

With new Defra figures revealing that the 5p plastic bag charge has led to a huge decline in the number of bags being handed out by retailers in England, a closer look at the data reveals a significant difference in the way the charge is now being managed by the country's biggest supermarkets.

According to the data from Defra, the number of plastic shopping bags given out across the country has dropped from seven billion to just over half a billion within the space of six months, following the introduction of the 5p carrier bag charge in England last October.

These figures were hailed as “a massive boon for nature and wildlife” by Friends of the Earth, and as a “Lib Dem success story” by the party’s Leader Tim Farron.

But a closer look at the data also reveals a big difference in the way the carrier bag charge is now being dealt with by the seven major retailers (Tesco, Sainsbury’s Asda, Morrisons, M&S, Waitrose and Co-op). Some are generating higher amounts of money for charity, while others are selling fewer ‘single-use’ bags to reduce their overall environmental impact.

More money/fewer bags?

Tesco, for example, sold close to 319.7 million single-use plastic bags for the six-month period from October 2015 to April 2016 – around the same amount as the total number of single-use plastic bags sold by the other six major retailers combined (321.2 million). Tesco has therefore raised more than £11m for charity – again, almost as much as the other six supermarkets combined.

Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, sold just 25.1 million single-use bags during the same period, raising less money for good causes (around £2m) than Tesco, but resulting in a lower overall environmental impact from the total number of single-use bags sold (as more Sainsbury’s customers are re-using bags), which the company says is more in-line with the overall point of the 5p charge.

Tesco, Asda, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons, and Co-op still offer single-use bags that are less than 0.07mm thick (and are therefore deemed ‘single-use’), wheras Sainsbury’s has replaced all of its plastic bags with sturdier, reusable carrier bags that are slightly thicker than the 0.07mm ‘single-use’ benchmark, offering free replacements when they wear out. However, these thicker bags technically fall outside of the new law, effectively leaving Sainsbury’s under no obligation to pass any proceeds of the 5p charge onto good causes.

This difference in the supermarkets’ approaches to the carrier bag charge and the money generated from it bring to light a key question surrounding the CSR implications of the carrier bag charge: should the focus be on raising money for charity, or selling fewer single-use bags?

Over the next 10 years, the Government hopes to raise more than £730m from the levy. So, how much has been raised from the carrier bag charge by England’s seven biggest supermarkets so far, and where exactly does the 5p go? And, crucially, how has this charge helped Britain’s supermarkets ramp up their CSR efforts across the country?

edie has dug deep into Defra’s data, and spoken to all seven major supermarkets, to find out…

Carrier bag charge: Where does all the money go?

  • Tesco

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £11.2m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued:  319.7 million (59.5 million bags for life sold)

Where does the money go?

Proceeds from the 5p charge are invested back into local communities through Tesco’s Bags of Help local grant scheme.

The scheme, administered by environmental improvement charity Groundwork, funds a number of local projects to create or improve green spaces in communities across the UK – ranging from building new parks and sports facilities to woodland walks and community gardens.

Local community groups can apply for funding and then, when applications close, Tesco and Groundwork whittle them down to three local projects for each store. Customers then vote in store for their favourite project, with £ 8,000, £10,000 and £12,000 available.

An interactive map shows all 1,170 community groups that have been awarded funding, with a total of £9.5m being invested into local projects so far. The remainder will then be given to good causes in October 2016, when the second round of Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme goes to the customer vote.

  • Sainsbury’s

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £2m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 25.1 million

Where does the money go?

Sainsbury’s has said that the net proceeds from the carrier bag levy – in addition to all profits from its 5p and 10p reusable bags – are added to its stores’ community budgets to support local causes charity partners, although specific causes and charities are not mentioned. 

Since the introduction of the charge, Sainsbury’s has seemingly focused on making its bags thicker and more re-usable, to reduce the overall environmental impact of the bags it sells. A statement on the retailer’s website reads: “Our aim has always been to reduce the number of carrier bags used by our customers, reflecting the environmental objectives set out in this legislation.

“We believe that our 5p reusable bags are the most effective way to do this, as they are made of recycled material and are recyclable, and we will replace them free of charge if they become damaged. We will also donate any profits we make from these reusable bags to good causes. We do however, still provide single use carrier bags for online orders, should a customer request their shopping be bagged.”

  • Asda

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £2.2m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 62.3 million

Where does the money go?

The £2,238,771 that was raised from the carrier bag charge from Asda stored in England will go towards building a new world-class dementia research centre in London, as part of an ongoing project with fellow retailers Iceland, Morrisons and Waitrose.

Building the new centre is a £350 million project and, according to latest estimates, is around £100m short of its target. It is hoped money from the carrier bag charges across all four retailers could meet this shortfall.

  • Morrisons

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £3.1m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 94.8 million

Where does the money go?

The vast majority  of the money raised from the carrier bag charge in Morrisons stores goes to the Morrisons Foundation, which aims to make a positive difference to people living in England, Scotland and Wales by providing match funding for Morrisons colleagues and donating grants to registered charities undertaking projects that improve people’s lives.

Recent beneficiaries of funding from the Morrisons Foundation include St. Luke’s Hospice, which received a donation of £4,498 to purchase new equipment and enhance the care they can offer to older people with dementia; and £3,683 donated to Headway Nottingham to create a new therapy area for service users.

A portion of the money raised by Morissons also goes to the retailer’s national charity partner Sue Ryder, with the remaining amount donated to University College London to support the development of the dementia research centre also being funded by Asda, Iceland and Waitrose.

  • M&S

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £1.9m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 45.7 million

Where does the money go?

M&S, which has charged for carrier bags for the past nine years, is donating the 5p minus VAT to good causes, with half going to local charities and community causes chosen by our stores and the other half going to a selection of national charities that we have worked with for many years, including WWF, Breast Cancer Now and Unicef.

  • Co-operative Food 

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £3.1m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 62.4 million (10.8 million bags for life sold)

Where does the money go?

Co-op is putting the proceeds of the carrier bag levy, and the profits from its reusable bag range, directly back into the communities where the funds are raised. The group will make carrier bag levy funding available to local causes in the communities that it serves in England, alongside a major new community funding programme launching in the autumn.

Colleagues within a Co-op community will initially select three local charities, with the carrier bag charge proceeds from the Food stores in each community then shared between the three local causes.

  • Waitrose

Money raised from carrier bag charge in England (October 2015 to April 2016): £1.3m

Number of single-use plastic bags issued: 30.9 million

Where does the money go?

Every penny raised from the sale of carrier bags in Waitrose shops (after VAT) goes into a community and environmental fund – we do not make any deductions for reasonable costs.

In England, Waitrose passes all of the money – totalling £1,287,872.79 as of April this year – onto the new dementia centre of excellence at University College London. In Wales and Scotland, the money raised from the sale of carrier bags is donated to three local good causes across both countries.

View the full data set for the English carrier bag charge on the Government website

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Luke Nicholls

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