Quite honestly, nothing makes me happier when I’m shopping than the cashier asking, “Would you like a bag?” giving me the option of using my own. I was truly eager to read Lisa D. Foster’s book “Bag Lady: How I Started a Business for a Greener World and Changed the Way America Shops.” If every cashier asked, perhaps more people would feel that they should bring their own. If Foster’s ambition to have everyone bring their own reusable bags sounds like a tall order, just dive into her inspiring book, which is part memoir, part business advice, and an adventure story about building her ethical, environmentally concerned business.
Foster was a high school English teacher on leave in Australia in 2005 when she came across reusable shopping bags for the first time, and became a convert. There were none or very few in the U.S. at the time. Always concerned with recycling and the environment, Foster started looking into the research: Americans alone use about 380 billion bags or sacks a year, more than a billion a day — as she says, “one consumer and one bag at a time.” And after using the bag for 20 or 30 minutes, they become garbage. Yet plastics destroy the environment, endanger species through entanglement, cause infertility and hormonal irregularities in large animals, and emit toxins into our own bodies as they move up the food chain. Each year, at least 8 million metric tons of plastics leak into our oceans, the equivalent of dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. Apparently, as of 2017, two-thirds of the fish in our food supply were estimated to be contaminated by plastic ingestion.
Foster offers further sobering facts such as that the petroleum in 14 plastic bags could drive a car 1 mile. Their clean-up hits us in our pocketbooks in the form of taxes as cities spend up to 17 cents per bag in disposal costs. She writes, “We may think we’re throwing plastic away, but there is no away. It’s coming back to us on our plates. It’s reaching into our wallets and our bodies.” And she reminds readers that all the plastic we’ve ever produced is still here. And if you think you’re doing less harm by using paper bags, think again. It takes 70 percent more global warming gases to make a paper bag than a plastic one. They also don’t biodegrade in landfills, which is where 80 percent end up.
Appalled and converted to reusable bags, Foster returned to the States to make a difference. With the encouragement of friends, she took the leap while still holding onto her teaching job and started her company, 1 Bag at a Time, in 2005. In an intimate and compelling way, Foster takes us on the wild ride of her fledgling efforts — marketing, cold calls, searching for people who can make important connections and introductions, attending conventions, decisions about her supply chain in relation to bag design, logo, manufacturing, shipping, pricing, as well as vividly describing lugging and storing the first shipment of 8,000 into her dining room, as she had no office yet. Throughout, we always feel how Foster’s passion fueled her drive to succeed as well as, she points out, her willingness to learn how to make the best product possible.
Early on, as a long-time Vineyard visitor and homeowner, she reached out to Steve Bernier at Cronig’s Markets, winning an order that was the beginning of what she says was a hockey-stick grown curve — one that rises and then, like a hockey stick, takes a sharp turn upward as growth explodes exponentially. We journey with her as she grows from selling a quarter of a million reusable bags in her first year to 2 million in her second, and 8 million in her third.
Foster is equally as transparent about what she did wrong, and tells the nail-biting tale about how she almost lost it all before pulling herself out again, sharing honestly what she learned along the way.
Foster says, “Passion for my product was the real secret sauce.” She hopes that “Bag Lady” will inspire readers to follow their own passion. “You know the problems that light a fire in your heart, the problems that need to be solved now to create a better world for ourselves and our future,” Foster says. “You don’t need any special education or knowledge to start.” She wants her book to serve as inspiration about the impact that one person can have: “You don’t have to start a business or change careers to do so,” she says. “The little things you do, like reusing a bag or refusing a straw, or paying 99 cents or a little more for sustainable packaging, are huge drivers of environmental change. Consumer support for responsible products is vitally important for business and government to do the right thing.”
Ultimately, after reading “Bag Lady,” not only will you want to carry reusable bags for all your shopping needs, but you’ll want everyone else to as well.
Lisa D. Foster will be at Edgartown Books on July 23, from 2 to 4 pm. “Bag Lady: How I Started a Business for a Greener World and Changed the Way America Shops” by Lisa D. Foster, $20.95. Available at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes, Bad Martha Farmer’s Brewery, and online.