We’ve all seen it: the plastic grocery bag blowing across the street, the supermarket’s version of a tumbleweed. Sharon Rowe of Ossining saw it too, and decided to take action.
“I was personally offended by and tired of all the plastic bags that got stuck in trees in the neighborhood parks,” she declares. “Plastic has its place in our culture but it shouldn’t be everywhere.” She began bringing her own cloth bag on trips to the store, and soon noticed others following suit. “Several people told me they thought it was a great idea, and I said to myself, “This could be a business.” So she created ECOBAGS, a brand of reusable bags sold by her company, Eco-bags Products. In order to get the project off the ground, she visited local store owners in the natural-foods industry, lobbying them to decrease their use of plastic and stock her cloth bags instead.
Rowe started her company back in 1989; the going was slow for years. It wasn’t until 2007 that she received the godsend many small business owners dream about: her bags were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Needless to say, sales spiked. Around the same time, Whole Foods stopped distributing plastic bags. “It was after those two events that people wanted to implement plastic-bag bans in their communities and bring their own bags into the store,” says Rowe. As a result, Eco-bags Products now boasts thousands of customers.
“What we go for most is durability,” says Rowe of her products. “Think about it — when you buy a shovel you don’t want to use it one time and throw it away; you want one that’s going to last and become a useful tool.” Rowe’s carryalls certainly stand up to the challenge, proven by positive feedback from customers who have used the same bags for 15 years. That’s potentially thousands of plastic bags kept out of our landfills.
Besides saving plastic, the ECOBAGS have other qualities that help save the planet. For one, they’re recyclable. “We produce bags that can become something else at the end of their lives,” Rowe says. The manufacturing process does not strain the environment either: The bags are made of certified organic and natural cotton, recycled cotton, and hemp/cotton blends, all of which are grown without the use of pesticides and are therefore safer for the soil and the air.
What began as a line of simple grocery totes currently includes a multitude of other products, from produce bags to wine carriers and travel bags. Very affordable — between $3 and $25 — many bags are also fashionable, sporting printed graphics and clever sayings. Custom printing and made-to-order options are also available, and many big-name brands like Community Markets, Kellogg’s, and Estée Lauder have taken advantage of them. “We’ve been making the WNYC bags for the past 10 years,” Rowe remarks.
The company’s newest project involves packaging constructed of recycled materials, which can be used to create an in-store display. “They’re much easier for retailers to hang, and they include the entire line,” says Rowe. Always environmentally conscious, Rowe not only looks for ways her company can conserve resources, but also for opportunities to be eco-friendly in her own life. “I live close enough that I walk to work,” she says.
Looking back on her accomplishments, Rowe feels a well-deserved shot of pride. “It’s great to be at the front end of this movement,” she says. “We’re still a small company, but I know we’ve made a difference. At first I would be the only one in the grocery store with a cloth bag; now the people using plastic are the odd ones out.”