Friday, September 3, 2010

How the California Grocers Association and its Members Can Snatch Victory From the Jaws of the Defeat of California's Plastic Bag Ban

The Insider: Heard On the Street

Fresh & Easy Buzz was the first food and grocery retailing-oriented publication, and one of the first publications of any format what so ever, to report on the defeat of AB 1998, the single-use plastic carrier bag ban bill in California.

The blog published its report - August 31, 2010: Breaking Buzz: California's Single-Use Plastic Carrier Bag Ban Bill Fails - minutes after the final vote was taken in the California State Senate. Fresh & Easy Buzz was able to beat all the others because it was monitoring the late night August 31 vote in real-time, via a live web-feed from a camera in the California State Senate Chambers.

'The Insider' loves it when a little blog can beat the big guys to the punch using a little pluck and a dose of ingenuity.

Having giving my props to Fresh & Easy Buzz, it's now time to move on.

in today's column I'm going to use a little pluck and ingenuity of my own and offer the California Grocers Association (CGA), its retailer-members, and its president, Ronald Fong, a suggestion, which if taken and implemented not only could allow the non-profit trade group - which represents about 500 food and grocery retail members operating over 6,000 food stores in California and Nevada, including Safeway Stores, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and numerous other chains and independents - to achieve the goals which led it to support AB 1998 in the first place, but also just might put an end to (or slow down) the state and local legislative debates (and enactments) over banning or charging a fee for single-use plastic carrier bags in the Golden State's grocery stores.

In other words, I'm suggesting the CGA might want to embrace its inner power as the trade association for nearly all of the major grocery chains in California and think and act outside the box when it comes to the single-use plastic carrier bag issue.

First a little background, which partly serves as the inspiration for this column and my suggestion to the grocer's association and its head, Ronald Fong.

On September 1, the day after the California State Senate voted against the plastic bag ban in a 21 (against) -to- 14 (in favor) vote shortly before Midnight on August 31, the CGA issued a press release with this title: "California Grocers Denounce Failure of Historic Compromise on Plastic Bag Ban." In the statement, Fong goes after the American Chemistry Council, which represents single-use plastic bag-makers and chemical companies like DuPont, Dow and others, with full guns blazing - one in each hand.

Below is the lead paragraph of the press release:

"The California Grocers Association today denounced the failure of the California State Senate to pass Assembly Bill 1998, a historic compromise between business and the environmental community that would have prohibited the distribution of single-use plastic bags at checkout while providing new incentives for consumers to bring their own reusable bags. The measure failed after a furious and unprecedented lobbying effort by the American Chemistry Council (ACC)."

In the paragraph above, CGA president Fong has both his guns fully-cocked. He fires those guns in the second paragraph below:

"It’s clear that the Senate felt pressure by the American Chemistry Council’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions; misinformation campaign and radio, television, and print ads designed to kill this historic compromise,” said Ronald Fong, President, California Grocers Association. “AB 1998 would have established a statewide standard designed to bring predictability to consumers and operational and competitive fairness to retailers. This bill would've been good for consumers, good for business and good for the environment and its defeat is a failure for Californians."

Pulling a third gun from his hip pocket, Fong fires away once again: "The ACC is the same chemical conglomerate that has fought every reasonable effort to prevent and rid our neighborhoods and waterways from plastic pollution. The ACC has a history of big spending in pursuit of stopping bag bans - most recently, they spent more than $1 million in the City of Seattle to thwart an effort to regulate single-use plastic carryout bags."

I have no argument with Ronald Fong's statement and quotes. The American Chemistry Council did essentially what he says it did in terms of killing AB 1998. The association spent truckloads of single-use plastic bags full of money on lobbying, media buys and donations to members of the California State Senate who it thought could be persuaded to vote against the bag ban bill.

But as Fong and the CGA know, that's what trade associations do, among other activities: They do whatever it takes to support or kill legislation based on what the members of the trade groups believe is in their best business interests. That's how the game is played. And nowhere is it played more aggressively than in Sacramento, which is something the CGA is well aware of, having been a legislative advocate for California's grocers since 1898. It's called hardball.

My point isn't to praise the American Chemistry Council's tactics. Rather it's to note those tactics are closer to what the legislative advocacy norm is in Sacramento (and elsewhere) instead of being the exception.

What's interesting though is that one trade group - the California Grocers Association (CGA) - is blasting another trade association - the American Chemistry Council, the members of which just happen to sell a product - single-use plastic carrier bags - to nearly every grocer in California (yes, CGA members).

To phrase it another way, a reading of CGA president Ronald Fong's statement in the September 1 press release strongly suggests the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has just ticked off the retailer-members of the CGA, which also happen to be the grocer-customers who spend millions of dollars a year as customers of the plastic bag-making companies which the ACC represents.

To paraphrase a famous quote: 'The American Chemistry Council my have won the war (AB 1998) but they certainly haven't won the battle.'

The fact is, the single-use plastic carrier bag-makers would be in a world of hurt if most, or even half, of the grocers in California decided to stop buying the thin plastic grocery bags from these companies, and therefore stopped offering the bags in their stores, either as a protest against the tactics CGA president Ronald Fong is outraged at or more importantly - and here's my suggestion - because the state's grocers, through the CGA, decide to enact a voluntary single-use plastic carrier bag ban led by its largest chain members - Kroger's Ralphs/Food 4 Less, Safeway Stores, Inc., Albertsons, Stater Bros., Save Mart, Costco, Raleys, Trader Joe's, Smart & Final and others, including Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which offers plastic carrier bags for free but no paper bags at all in its 98 California stores.

The chains mentioned above sell over 60% of all the food and grocery items purchased in California. If the CEO's of these chains (or even Ralphs/Food 4 Less, Safeway and a couple others only), through their trade association, the CGA, all agreed to stop offering single-use plastic carrier bags in their stores voluntarily, like CGA member Whole Foods Market did a couple years ago, and Sprouts Farmers Market did recently, and as some independents in California, like two-store United Markets in San Rafael, a CGA member, say they plan to do soon, every other grocer in the state would most likely follow their lead.

The suggestion in a nutshell

So here's my suggestion to the retailer-members of the California Grocers Association and the group's president Ronald Fong: You have the power to create what would essentially be a single-use plastic carrier bag ban in California, similar to AB 1998 if it had past, by virtue of the fact CGA members represent stores that sell the vast majority of food and groceries in the Golden State.

Start with Ralphs/Food 4 Less, Safeway, Stater Bros., Albertsons, Save Mart and Raleys, for example, and the dominoes (other grocers) will come falling down.

The CGA can propose its own plastic bag ban to its member-retailers, discuss it, even perhaps seek guarantees from the state legislature and Governor in return for enacting it, and if the retailer-members like it and can agree on it - and knowing the history of the CGA, I think if it were a priority, most members would all go along with it - CGA can make it happen without legislation and all the sausage-making and money-spending involved in campaigns like the just-ended battle over AB 1998.

Many California grocery chain CEO's and independent store owners are conservatives - and even libertarians. What's a better conservative or libertarian solution to the plastic carrier bag debate and battle than a voluntary one, without government intervention, enacted by the very retailers who use the bags? And since the CGA and its retailer-members (even some that disagreed with the legislation went along for the good of the industry) is on the record supporting a single-use plastic carrier bag ban, why not do it on your own? The positive press and publicity might be an added bonus?

And Ronald Fong, imagine the shock when your counterpart at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) hears the CGA plans to explore the creation of its own voluntary single-use plastic carrier bag ban - ouch!

What could it do about it?

Would the ACC lobby grocer-members? Perhaps. But it would be silly and likely futile. Would they run media advertisements encouraging consumers to tell their California grocer to 'Say no the voluntary retailer plastic bag ban?' Doubt it. But those ads would be funny to watch. Might the ACC launch its own voter initiative in which it asks California voters to vote against the choice by publicly-held and privately-owned food and grocery retailers in California to stop using plastic bags? Don't think that dog would hunt, including because of a little document called the constitution.

The 411 for the CGA is that it's got the power on the single-use plastic carrier bag issue, despite the defeat of AB 1998. CGA members are the plastic bag-makers' customers. Isn't the customer always right? Additionally, CGA members comprise stores representing the vast majority of all groceries sold in California. If you build it, they will come.

The details of my proposed California grocer-CGA-sponsored single-use plastic carrier bag ban are less important than the idea to do so and the blueprint which I've just offered to the retailer-members of the grocer's association and to CGA president Fong in my column.

'The Insider' doesn't have a dog in this fight. But based on its support of AB 1998 and the comments from president Fong in his August 31 statement, the California Grocers Association sure does. It has the equivalent of many packs of dogs in the single-use plastic carrier bag battle. In fact, grocers are the lead dogs when it comes to the thin plastic bags and their use.

Grocers have a history of thinking outside the box - selling groceries online via the web, outside of the physical box, is a good example of that ability. Now that AB 1998 has failed - and at least 75 California cities and counties are at various stages of enacting their own, individual single-use plastic carrier bag bans or fee schemes - it appears to me the stage is set for the CGA and its members to do some of that outside the box thinking, perhaps starting with a discussion of the self-ban program I've described.

It's really all about embracing their collective inner-power, which just happens to be one of the reasons for and objectives of trade associations.

Recent related stories from Fresh & Easy Buzz:

August 31, 2010: Breaking Buzz: California's Single-Use Plastic Carrier Bag Ban Bill Fails

August 31, 2010: It's Down to the Wire in California State Senate For Possible First-in-the-Nation Statewide Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban

August 23, 2010: California's Battle to Ban the Plastic Bag Heats Up in Sacramento: Author of Legislation Says the Reports of its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

August 20, 2010: Single-Use Plastic Carrier Bag Ban Bill AB 1998 Could Be in Difficulty of Passing in the California State Senate

August 16, 2010: Supporters of California's First-in-the-Nation Single-Use Plastic Bag Ban Going Humorous to Win on the Eve of State Senate Vote

July 20, 2010: California's First-in-the-Nation Plastic Carrier Bag Ban Legislation Looks to Be On its Way to VictoryJune 19, 2010: 'Paper or Plastic' Likely to Be Replaced By 'Reusable or Paper' (For a Fee) in California Grocery Stores

[Fresh & Easy Buzz has been reporting on, writing about, and offering analysis and opinion on the single-use plastic carrier bag, reusable bag, and related topics and issues since early 2008. Click here, here, here and here to read a selection of those posts.]

Recent columns by 'The Insider'

~August 22, 2010: Challenges & Opportunities: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Will Supply its Northern CA Stores From its Riverside County DC in Southern CA

~July 18, 2010: When it Comes to Northern California - its Competitors are Rome Burning and Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is Nero Playing the Fiddle

~July 13, 2010: A Few Words on The Life and Death of Veteran Southern California Grocer Roger K. Hughes

~June 27, 2010: The Insider: Will Tesco Acquire Supervalu, Inc. and Change its 'Fresh & Easy' Game in America?

~June 12, 2010: Will Phil Clarke Shake Things up at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market USA When He Becomes Tesco CEO in 2011?

~May 20, 2010: Welcome to Discountopia USA

~April 29, 2010: Heard on the Street: There's Something About Albertsons ... In Southern California

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