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Foodstuffs: Voluntary regulation fails

Written By: - Date published: 2:30 pm, September 2nd, 2009 - 44 comments
Categories: business, Environment, national/act government - Tags:

plasticbagchinaI find myself in the curious position of sympathising with a company reneging on an environmental promise.

Foodstuffs announced yesterday that the charge on plastic bag was to be optional, and that they would not charge people for plastic bags if they object.

Get Real, a New Zealand organisation campaigning for the elimination of disposable non-biodegradable plastic bags have labelled the move a farce and who could blame them? The scheme led to a reduction in bag use of 50%, or 40 million bags and long may that reduction continue. What that 40 million statistic, provided by Foodstuffs’ MD Tony McNeil, illustrates is the huge number of bags used in New Zealand.

Why is this a problem? Firstly, they are made from a non renewable resource that is in fairly high demand, is becoming rather expensive to extract, and when supply becomes scarce compared to demand civilisation will have some serious issues to face. Secondly, they are outrageously prolific (a forty million reduction since the campaign started one month ago, for one organisation in NZ, and that’s only half of their output?!) and non biodegradable. if you haven’t heard of the North Pacific Gyre, hopefully you will think of it every time you use a plastic bag now. Plastic bags have an external cost; one that is not borne by the cost to the consumer (especially when they are free!).

So why do I sympathise with Foodstuffs? Because they were taking steps to do the right thing, they were not supported by the government, and as a result were threatened with losing business. A company should not lose business for trying to reduce an externality that is by no means exclusive to them. National refused to impose a mandatory charge on bags when the idea was raised. Nick Smith: ‘National’s position is that there are sensible, voluntary initiatives that we can take to reduce plastic bag usage.’

That’s one sensible, voluntary initiative that is being abandoned because of its voluntary nature. National’s approach? ‘…encouraging more environmentally friendly behaviour with financial incentive rather than through regulation or prohibition.’ The only financial incentive at play here is the one encouraging Foodstuffs to abandon a good policy.

This is a clear indication that a voluntary approach does not always work regulation or prohibition would put all retailers on an even playing field, instead of punishing those trying to do the right thing.

Maynard J

44 comments on “Foodstuffs: Voluntary regulation fails ”

  1. Ianmac 1

    My rubbish bag is made up almost totally with packaging. This to me seems to be a much bigger problem. I recycle what I can but packaging around packaging is a PAIN!
    Of course my few supermarket plastic carry bags get reused in my kitchen-tidy. Without them I would have to pay for plastic bags instead. Ummmm

  2. r0b 2

    Excellent post.

    What are the cases in any industry where voluntary regulation has worked or is working? It would be interesting to see some examples to compare with the cases where it fails.

    • Maynard J 2.1

      Thanks r0b.

      “What are the cases in any industry where voluntary regulation has worked or is working?”

      I would love to see some good examples too – if these could be readily identified then government would have a framework to work within – they would know whether regulation would (should?) work in a specific situation, or whether a less forceful approach would work, and not have any of the downfalls assocuated with regulation or prohibiton.

      The opposite would also be useful – I am sure we can think of a few examples where regulation or prohibition have failed. Like the Prohibition 🙂

      • Bill 2.1.1

        Wasn’t voluntary regulation of the banking sector a whopping success? And doesn’t it continue to be? All that money from us to them. All that power concentrating in ever fewer banking hands?.

        Perhaps success is a bit like beauty…

        In all seriousness though, I don’t think any type of regulation will be satisfactory until and unless it results from affected constituencies being given an input to decision making processes in relation to the amount they will be affected.

    • Chris S 2.2

      The ASA (advertising standards authority) in New Zealand is voluntarily regulated.

      Or at least self-regulated, not sure if there’s a difference. I was under the impression that if they didn’t, the state would step in and do it for them.

      • Tigger 2.2.1

        The ASA typically does a good job (well, we think they do but can’t really judge since there is no right of appeal beyond the bounds of the self-regulated arena) – but did you see their decision making around election advertising last year? It was largely flawed as Steven Price points out http://www.medialawjournal.co.nz/?p=195. Worse, when they ruled against ACT the decision wasn’t released before the election http://www.medialawjournal.co.nz/?p=196.

        As for plastic bags – yep, let’s regulate them out of existence. My other half and I often spend evenings in summer cleaning up Petone beach – plastic bags are overwhelmingly what we pick up.

        And it’s not an either/or with packaging. Packaging is a problem as well. Capitalism doesn’t like being told what to do but certainly waste minimisation around packaging could do with some legislative help.

        • Graeme

          Decisions of the ASA are susceptible to judicial review. And on the whole, I’d say it was a pretty good example of self-regulation working.

          On the broader issue, however, plastic supermarket bags are the easy target. Packaging is a far greater concern – we can now buy individually-packaged prunes FFS – but also far harder to tackle, so we don’t.

      • Maynard J 2.2.2

        Same with the Real Estate Institute and their whopping $500 fines – that is self regulated IIRC.

    • Quoth the Raven 2.3

      Here’s an article, not very industry related, but it shows the pernicious effects of government regulation on the lower classes: Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know.
      There are numerous examples where regulation has been actively lobbied for by big business and ended up restricting competition to the detriment of consumers. For interest read this.

    • Swampy 2.4

      The Labour party goes around abolishing laws restricting people’s behaviour – unless they are employers or businessmen. The message is very clear.

  3. no leftie 3

    I applaud Foodstuffs for having the honesty to admit this publicity stunt didn’t work out(in Wellington at least) and it’s once again providing shopping bags free of charge.

    That doesn’t of course mean people have to stop taking their own bags to the supermarket. It just means those who don’t, won’t face an extra sting in their grocery bill.

    • Izzy 3.1

      Dude. It’s a few cents. It’s not a sting. Maybe a “st…”

    • Swampy 3.2

      It wasn’t a publicity stunt. It was the supermarkets finding a convenient way of being able to recover the costs of the bags from the public at a time when they are all feeling the financial pinch.

      The supermarket business is one of the most cut throat in the country and they collude with food manufacturers, public interest does not enter into it a lot of the time, don’t let anyone con you that the supermarket chains really care about anything except the bottom line.

  4. Seti 4

    Plastic bags have multiple domestic uses. The packaging that most goods are surrounded with do not. As ianmac says this is the real issue.

    • Bill 4.1

      I seem to recall reading a piece about legislation making it unlawful to sell roadside food in one of the Indian states if it was wrapped in banana leafs or some such. In the supposed interests of public H&S, all food had to be sold in plastic wraps or similar.

      Last I heard McD and others of their ilk were just lovin it.

      How much packaging here was introduced under similar pretences with the result that small and local businesses went under in the new ‘healthier packaging’ playing field?

  5. infused 5

    Excatly.. Only reason I get plastic bags is to put the recycling in and to use as rubbish bags. Otherwise you have to buy rubbish bags…

  6. Is that picture taken from a New Zealand rubbish dump?

  7. outofbed 7

    I try an use the brown paper mushroom bags for all the fruit and vegies i buy at a Supermarket However they can get a little pissed with me
    Good to support small local butchers , bakers and vegie shops where possible though

  8. BLiP 8

    The plastic bag issue is symptomatic of the huge struggle we have as a nation to come to terms with our individual commitment to the environment. Government isn’t going to do it for us and nor is big business. It is up to you and me working together.

    Yet, it seems as if the simple act of bringing your own bags to the super market is just too much of a burden for your average New Zealander. And, if that’s the case, then how can we expect New Zealanders to also walk to the shops and leave the 4WD at home? How many operational televisions and cell phones have ended up in the dump so that we might have the latest flat screen and ultra-touch units?

    The 100% Pure New Zealand brand is fake, not because the government is prepared to turn the National Parks into mines but because individuals can’t be bothered reflecting its values. We’ve got the government we deserve.

    • Bill 8.1

      And if consumers are ne’erdowells then how about producers simply refuse to produce poisonous pap?

      I know I’ve proposed this before as a more effective course of action and the more I think about it the more convinced I become.

      I cannot consume what is not being produced and the corporate buy happy propaganda is aimed wholly at me as a consumer. Imagine the wharfies simply refusing to handle nonsense products and other NZ workers simply refusing to produce them. You might disagree, but I think that is a far more imaginable scenario than expecting consumers to not consume shelves full of crap in the face of a corporate consumerist propaganda.

      Unions and workers have only to convince their members and fellow workers respectively to stop contributing and force company compliance without having to combat the devious propaganda that would have us believe products are environmentally innocuous and somehow enhance our value of life.

      Workers know the processes and components/ingredients of production and cannot be misled or kidded where the focus is their own industry. Consumers are made for misleading.

      • BLiP 8.1.1

        I agree absolutely. No longer are we citizens in a democracy, we are but happy consumers, unconscious of the impact of our behaviour outside the four walls of our own home and the irrational basis of our decision making.

        It suits the corporates and their subservient politicians to keep us in this numb, credit-crunched zombie state for it would be far too dangerous if we were to act consciously in a collective fashion. Just look at the way Tele-Scum is treating its striking workers – breaking them up into smaller and smaller chunks via the redundancy strategy and setting them up to compete not with the corporation but with each other.

        I fear the idea that unions could cease to produce and/or handle needless products is as wonderful as it is forlorn. Union members are, first, consumers and convincing them to take action for the beneift of wider society would prove to be a hugely difficult task given the fire power of those who would oppose such “treason”. Would be great, though.

        • Bill

          Perhaps ceasing to produce or handle needless or damaging products should be seen as an end point rather than a strategy.

          There are a million and one launching points to a road that takes us there. It’s often not rocket science to figure out where the unnecessary and damaging points are in any given industrial process. Refusing to do things stupidly while offering smarter ways to do things could be a starting point. I.e. introducing the idea in a non-confrontational way and then escalating could be a way to go.

          And getting consumers involved too. All consumers… from idiot hippy new agers to animal rights and environmentalists to political and religious types… eg what if the workers at Cadbury had stated they would not be adding palm oil to chocolate because of the CO2 effect of palm oil plantations?…and then introduced the orang-utan angle?….then the fact that a proportion of beans are harvested by child slaves?….etc, etc. Throw in media management and consumer involvement. Stir up and spread in a all countries Cadbury operate in.

          Then make the connection between Cadbury operations and Nestle… between Nestle and whichever other transglobal corporation…from food producers to non-food products.

          I’m not holding my breath on any of this mind. I can already hear the unions moaning that current employment law won’t allow for such and such a course of action…the employer has the legal right to run their business as they see fit as an eg… as though preserving the sanctity of half baked laws is worth the trade off of a half baked earth.

          • BLiP

            Again, I agree absolutely. The breaking of ridiculous laws would be the least of my concerns.

            The example set by the consumer backlash against Cadbury’s is a great example of what happens when consumers act collectively – but look at what initiated the movement: the taste of their chocolate. F F S ! How can we rise up against “the machine” because we don’t like what they’ve done to our chocolate and then ignore pouring filth into the environment when we upgrade the PC?

            I’m really interested in Joanna and Maynard’s comments below about the retail outlets for goods also becoming responsible for the sustainable disposal of packaging and “redundant” products.

            Now . . . how to “sell” it to the masses?

  9. JohnDee 9

    While i am simpathetic to Foodstuff’s plight, i suspect it is not as big a problem as they make out.
    Pack n Save has never in recent years at least supplied plastic bags. You can buy plastic bags but you usually use theoir left over cardboard boxs or pack it into your car or what ever other methods. New World has always supplied plastic bags free and while i am sure that overall they use substantial amounts, in the overall sceme of things it is not huge.

    • Swampy 9.1

      Wrong, I shop P&S every week and have always had plastic bags and never been charged for them until this new policy came in

  10. Joanna 10

    I am currently living in South Australia and here the state govt banned plastic bags earlier this year. The first week shops were allowed to give out any remaining stock they had. The next couple of weeks week, it was a real pain forgetting a bag and having to buy (another) reusable one. Now a few months down the track everybody carries reusable bags (and are very happy to lend the odd times one forgets, like today…). Anyway, from wo to go in two months and the entire attitude to bags for a city the size of Auckland has changed for the better and people generally seem much more aware about litter and waste in general. This type of legislation can and does work – if only the NZ govt would follow suit

    • Ianmac 10.1

      Great to hear Joanna. I think that our current govt. might be reluctant to upset the horses. Why it might set off a “Nanny State” barrage. And once that became common usage for blaming the last Government, it will become a genie out of a bottle.
      I wonder if in SA they could just introduce an act forbidding hitting of kids without a great fuss?

      • Joanna 10.1.1

        Actually thats quite interesting – some states (NSW) have given children the same rights as adults wrt to assult, others (such ans SA and QLD) are moving in that direction though more slowly. The courts are also taking a more of a stand. But it has not generated anywhere near the same publicity as in NZ.
        The “nanny state” idea which is so prevalent in NZ is a phrase I never hear since I moved to Australia – they seem much more hung up on percieved corruption of officials (which is luckily not a problem at home) and sex scandals but i’ts the really big issues (environment, recession, health and education at the moment) that dominate.

  11. RedLogix 11

    I am currently living in South Australia and here the state govt banned plastic bags earlier this year.

    Evil nanny-state Stal*n^st trogdolyte bloodsucking, parasitic bureaucrats sucking the life out of good free men trying to make an honest living hand-crafting plastic bags….sighs, I just can’t do it… where’s the ‘baiter when you need him?

    Seriously, I guess this is yet another comparison with Australia we won’t be hearing from that nice Mr Key anytime soon either.

  12. jcuknz 12

    Plastic bags have never been free becuase they are a part of the retailer’s margin on goods we buy. People should be convinced by logic, as I was a year or two ago when I bought my first green bag, i now have four of them, rather than penalties. If the charges had started earlier I could have justified my purchase of the bags from the savings of not buying plastic. It used to annoy me the way the checkout ladies used many more bags than were really neccessary, perhaps becuase they were afraid that a full bag would break. Baging meat products separately when they are already covered in plastic. Another thought, why do we need new materials to make the bags, why not recycled plastic? Some shops use black bags, are they recycled plastic? I too have noticed that my rubbish bags are mainly filled with wrapping material.

  13. jcuknz 13

    “Comments for this post will be closed on 2 October 2009” …. Really! 🙂

  14. Maynard J 14

    I agree with you all that getting rid of plastic bags is not the be-all and end-all of pollution control; this case was a shining example of voluntary schemes and their downfalls, more than the focus on bag use reduction itself.

    As for getting rid of packaging, a decent waste levy combined with compulsory waste repatriation would help. The idea of going back to the supermarket with reusable bags, filled with excess non-recyclable packaging for them to deal with is an attractive one. Their suppliers would quickly get the message to cut down on packaging or use recyclable alternatives.

    • Joanna 14.1

      We could adopt a “product stewarship” approach a la Germany. We only studied this briefly so I don’t know/rememeber heaps about it, but done correctly it was making a huge difference to waste.
      wrt packaging, shops could be required to have bins where you could remove the packaging at the point of purchase and the stores had to pay for recycling (if possible) or disposal – onus on retailers to pressure suppliers for less packaged goods.

      • Maynard J 14.1.1

        I know in Germany with large goods you return them to the supplier when they are at the end of their life cycle, is that what you mean?

        It would certainly encourage them to make goods last longer, if it is no longer in your interest to promote a rapid replacement cycle!

        • Joanna

          Yeah thats what I’m talking about – but extending these principles to the total product (ie: packaging/waste as well). Encouraging (forcing) manufacturers to consider the total life cycle of their product should lead to changes in the design, packaging, shipment and disposal of goods.
          I’m not sure NZ is a large enough market for this to make an impact on goods made off-shore – it may just result in people chosing to not sell their products here (which could have a spin-off encouraging more manufacturing in NZ…) but as more countries adopt this kind of legislation we should start to see differences.

  15. Felix:

    I ask because the whole story was about New Zealand and recycling, and if the picture wasnt fron New Zealand it gives a false impression.

    I dont see race in it?????????????????????

    • Maynard J 15.1

      Our pollution does not stay on our shores, Brett, it is a global problem.

      For a good example, have you seen where our IT waste goes to die?

  16. I just think it would of been more accurate to use a New Zealand tip in relation to the story, I guess the standard likes watching Faux News, they seem to get their journalistic ideas from them.

  17. Maynard J 17

    Oh, you are just being pathetic and pedantic, Brett, as you were.

    Here is a picture of the results of our use of plastics (as I just told you, before it did the Dale Special – in one ear, out the other – our rubbish does not all end up at new Zealand landfills, so a picture of an NZ tip is no more relevant) if it will make you quit your whining (as if): http://adelaidegreenporridgecafe.blogspot.com/2007/11/ocean-rubbish-dump-bigger-than.html

  18. I dont see it as being pedantic.

    If Ia right wing had done a post about how peace protesters get violent and then posted a picture of something throwing a glass bottle at a police officer, but the picture was from overseas, the left would be up in arms.

    • Maynard J 18.1

      If at the protests a bottle was thrown at a police officer, but that act was not photographed, and someone used a photo depicting such an act then I would have very little to complain about – but that might have something to do with me not being pedantic, and also not being desperate to avoid talking about the topic.

  19. Herodotus 19

    Be it Foodstuffs/Progressive or anyone else it is what has a positive/negative effect on profit. They have reacted to their key KPI. Another example of this is both coys support in not selling booze as a lost leader. Does anyonre reading this REALLY believe that they are acting on what is best for society?
    If I think the Alcohol advisory board ( I will take correction on this most willingly
    ) said that it was wanting coys to have a social conscience and NOT sell their goods at a loss, what company would not follow that voluntary initiative. There is some duplicity here !!

  20. no leftie 20

    Auckland shoppers have voted with their wallets as well.

    Time to celebrate another victory for people power?

    Or time to call for more controls and bans?

    I wonder which.

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