Reducing Environmental Pollution and Wasted Energy One Plastic Bag at a Time: Interview with Pierre Barlier, Founder and CEO of KeepCool Bags
Eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic items has recently shifted from solely the focus of the hyper-environmentally conscious to a massively mainstream push. Everywhere you look these days, advocates are educating the public on the harm to nature of too many plastic straws and utensils, news outlets are reporting on immense and devastating plastic gyres in the world’s oceans, and governments are pushing to tax or outright ban the use of single-use plastic shopping bags.
While those who haven’t been paying close attention might assume these issues have come to the forefront thanks to hard work put in during the last few years, this mainstream attention is in reality the long overdue result of forward-looking leaders in the push to reduce unneeded plastic from Earth’s landfills.
Pierre Barlier is one such innovator who was at the forefront of this movement, pioneering the efforts to eliminate single-use plastic bags one shopping trip at a time.
Pierre founded KeepCool Bags almost two decades ago, and, in that time, he has served to spread his eco-conscious thinking, establish his brand as the leader in reusable shopping bags to major mass retailers (including Costco, Walmart, and Whole Foods), and bring mainstream attention to using reusable shopping bags as a conscious lifestyle choice.
As a company, KeepCool Bags points to the following facts as what drives them in their mission:
- Since plastic bags were introduced to grocery stores in 1977, an estimated 300 million of them have ended up in the Atlantic Ocean alone.
- An estimated eight million metric tons of plastic has ended up in the world’s oceans, with that figure expected to double by 2025.
- Marine litter causes the death of up to one million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals each year.
- The amount of petroleum used to create 14 plastic bags is enough to drive a car one mile.
I was fortunate enough to be able ask Pierre a few questions on these dismaying environmental facts that drive him, the history and future of KeepCool bags, and other approaches to the energy and environmental issues caused by plastic bags.
The origins of KeepCool Bags
Matt Chester: One of your claims to fame, and an important reason you were able to get an early lead in the market, is that you sought to solve the problem of too many single-use plastic bags 20 years ago, well before most people saw the need for it or the potential of reusable bags.
What drew you to this type of product initially—was it purely a sense of environmental duty, or did you see an economic and business opportunity before anyone else did?
Pierre Barlier: It was a combination of both. I had already worked for several forward-thinking companies, plus I’d become rather aware of environmental issues due to a sailing trip that took me across the Pacific. I saw a lot of ocean debris at this time.
I also saw an opportunity to improve the cold chain through insulated totes, as no one had yet introduced the idea of protecting the quality of fresh or frozen foods from the store to home. So, I married the two ideas and came up with KeepCool.
KeepCool Bags today
Chester: Specific to the reusable bag market, how do you differentiate yourself from the competition? While you might have been the first, now there are many players who are making reusable bags and grocery totes—what’s the special sauce that makes KeepCool Bags more environmentally friendly, more desirable, and/or higher performance than others on the market?
Barlier: We were one of the first players in the game, which helped us grab an early foothold. But what has made us stand out is our desire to constantly innovate and deliver more than the ask. We are always looking at innovations in structure, design aesthetics, function, and, most importantly, sustainable materials. We approach each and every project in this fashion, with the desire to deliver an added element or feature while holding down costs. This unwavering focus has created some of our most enduring client relationships and resultant category successes for our customers.
Chester: Your products have a significant presence across the world, including in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Do you find there’s any difference between the types of bags consumers in different parts of the world want? Are there certain products designed specific to one region to address these different needs?
Barlier: We have found that good design, sustainable materials, and strong value are universal in appeal. Having said that, there are some needs/habits that are unique to each market. Even within one large market like the United States, there are distinct situations due to local legislation and consumption habits.
For example, in Florida a bag might be used as a souvenir or beach tote, while in Chicago they’re more everyday totes and carryalls. We recognize the richness of that diversity and thrive on creating bags that address those regional needs as well.
Since most of our bags are custom made, we take the local shopping trends and retailer desires to heart and create structures and features that further enhance the shopping and usage experience. What we do find is that there are certain markets that have developed even greater engagement with our bags.
For example, many shoppers in Japan are personalizing our bags with their own designs and trims. The Japanese shopper really does use our bags for daily shopping and our bags can be found in most shopping carts. In the U.S. and Canadian markets, a lot of our insulated bags are used for outdoor activities — we found they’re the bag of choice for rangers in natural parks!
Chester: How important have you found it to make a product that’s not only functional in replacing single-use plastic bags and filling the customers’ needs, but also attractive and eye-catching?
Barlier: Being both functional and aesthetically pleasing is the secret sauce. If the bag doesn’t perform its function, then we haven’t done our job. And if the bag isn’t attractive, it’s less likely the customer will use it, even if it works as it should. So, we always seek to deliver beautiful bags that shoppers would be proud to carry. Bags are a personal item and each tote is imbued with the personality of its carrier. Each year, we embark on design workshops to find styles and colors that bring a new level of delight for our customers and their shoppers.
As evidence, we now find that many of our bags have become collector’s items, with shoppers trading them with one another. And as I mentioned before, in some markets, such as Japan, many shoppers are personalizing their totes with their own design touches. We love to see this level of engagement, as bags are so personal and have such an important role in our daily lives. I’d go as far as to say, “Show me your bag and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Chester: Concepts like circular economy, triple bottom line, and social corporate responsibility are becoming more common to see in mission statements and core values of companies, though they are too often just tossed around as buzz words rather than true core values of organizations.
However, KeepCool Bags’ four key pillars are listed as: innovation, sustainability, affordability, and honesty. These ideas are truly integrated into your business operations. What would you say to businesses that are not fully adopting these business concepts due to concerns over costs or other priorities, or maybe even worse the companies who give the circular economy and the rest lip service but don’t fully commit based on their actions?
Barlier: I have a hard time disconnecting the way I conduct myself in the business world from the way I do in other segments of my life. I need to feel good on all fronts and behave in a way that I believe in. Obviously, consumers are also sharper and more well-researched than ever. They have more information available to them now than at any other time in history. If a company isn’t living up to its promises, consumers will find out — and that information is going to be rapidly disseminated via social media.
That said, a company shouldn’t try to tack on sustainability like it’s an ‘add-on’ feature. It’s key that a business adopt such practices and have them embedded in its core practices. We are living in a time when businesses are called to higher standards — the world and our environment necessitate this more than ever.
And it’s our role as manufacturers to create products according to ethical practices, not because the world is watching but because it is the responsible thing to do. While it may require a bit more upfront thinking to make sustainable business choices, I promise the results both in business and society will be much greater than the upfront time and capital investments. Imagine a world where all businesses were aligned to do good!
The energy, sustainability, and climate change parts of the plastic bag problem
Chester: I come from the world of energy specifically, where my focus is on increasing energy efficiency, pushing for a clean energy transition, and fighting climate change. With that in mind, I wanted to ask where you see the energy part of the equation as opposed to just the environmental concerns.
For example, 100 million new plastic grocery bags require 8,300 barrels of oil for the extraction of materials, manufacturing, transport, and curbside collection, while the same number of paper bags only require 15,100 barrels of oil and leave a smaller carbon footprint.
Do you have any sense in the difference in life-cycle energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions required for a reusable bag compared with these single-use plastic bags?
Barlier: It really depends on the material being used for the reusable bag. Some materials last longer than others, while others, such as cotton, also require a lot of water to grow and produce, although they’re not so bad for the environment when it comes to disposal.
But that is one of the reasons we have worked to incorporate post-consumer recycled material, such as our ‘I Used To Be A Plastic Bottle’, which consists of 100% recycled PET (the plastic used to make beverage bottles). Keeping that waste out of our environment is key and is the core component of the eco-mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’
But because plastic is not a sustainable resource, we’ve been researching other materials that are both efficient in production and don’t harm the environment in disposal. To that end, we are launching a variety of washable paper for a new line of bags. The material is so efficient that only 7% of the water we use for production is not returned to the ecosystem, rather it’s lost to evaporation. In 2016, for example, we used 140,000 cubic meters of water, of which 130,000 cubic meters were cleaned and returned to the river.
Chester: Do you have any thoughts on the push to create technology that helps breakdown plastic in such a way that they would be useful as a feed in waste-to-energy generation systems or even turn the oil that created the plastics back into transportation fuel? Any thoughts on how that push compares with the push to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics?
Barlier: Any circular economy that promotes lower greenhouse gas emissions is a win. It’s not an all-or-nothing approach. There needs to be ongoing work — innovation, reduction, reusing resources, and of course, recycling post-consumer waste. This practice should also be complemented by pushing for advancement in more renewable materials with less reliance on fossil fuels. To that end, we are always seeking ways to reduce our footprint beyond the category of reusable bags itself through our search for more sustainable materials.
Chester: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that what passes for a sustainable product has evolved over the years, even noting that something you would have called acceptably sustainable just five years ago would no longer pass your test today. Can you explain what you mean by that and give examples of how the goalposts continue to move with regards to sustainability?
Barlier: We are constantly innovating to make our products not only more functional but more sustainable. When we first started out, there was no universal standard to which we were held, so almost anything we did that lessened the environmental impact of our bags was a win. But the real goal is to have zero environmental impact — zero waste, zero harm.
And if we can ever reach that goal, we might then raise the bar to see if we can have a positive environmental impact, meaning that our bags might then actually improve the environment, rather than have less of a negative impact. I don’t even know if technology is at a point where this is feasible or if it ever will be, but it’s something for which we can hope.
For example, when we started out, we had bags that were made from 80% recycled bottles. We then upped that to 100% with our ‘I Used To Be A Plastic Bottle.’ So, while our first products were an improvement over what was then on the market, we were able to go a step further and improve on our own improvement. And that’s what we always strive to do– constantly improve in this area and others.
Government role in regulating plastics
Chester: What’s your opinion of various efforts of governments to reduce the use of plastic bags? I live in Washington DC where we are charged five cents per plastic bag used, but just across the river in Virginia there’s nothing like that. Then across the Atlantic Ocean you have EU proposing a total ban on plastic forks and other products, as well as Theresa May proposing a £60 million fund to develop ways to minimize plastic in the oceans through microbead bans, reducing single-use plastic bags, and more.
Overall, I would assume you’re a supporter of government action in this regard, but can you give some insight into which type of government intervention you find to be the most appropriate and/or most effective?
Barlier: When government steps in to ban or limit certain materials or items, it usually means there’s a good reason for it. What if the EPA hadn’t imposed its many laws about air pollution? Cities such as Los Angeles would be shrouded in smog these days. Plus, even if the ban doesn’t come about, the mere talk of it can awaken social consciousness as to the detrimental impact of these products, thereby igniting change in consumer behavior.
In the case of implementing a tax on such unnecessary items, it can spur consumers to rethink whether they actually need an item or not.
Chester: Some studies have shown that the plastic bag tax in Ireland that was implemented in 2002 was successful in eliminating plastic bag use, but it also resulted in a 77% increase in kitchen garbage bag sales, as people were no long just re-using their grocery bags to throw their trash. How do you address such rebound effects? And what can a consumer who typically uses these plastic grocery bags as trash bags do to be as environmentally conscious as possible?
Barlier: In almost every case, there’s an alternative. Yes, we have to throw out our trash somehow, but now the onus is on trash bag manufacturers to develop a better, more sustainable product. Society is becoming increasingly conscious of how much damage plastic can cause, so many people are taking steps to minimize their ecological footprint.
In my four-person household, for example, we’ve got it down to one plastic garbage bag a week. Some people are going bag-free altogether — and it’s not that hard to do so. There are numerous blog posts about how to do it (here, here, and here).
There’s also the green mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ So, if you can’t completely eliminate plastic bags from your lifestyle just yet, you can at least reduce your use of them by separating your trash so that as little of it requires disposal in a plastic bag.
For example, you can put your dry trash in a plain reusable bin and just the messier stuff in a plastic bag. And a lot of that messier stuff can be composted, so if you’re able to do that, you’ve got the waste down even further. That alone will greatly reduce the number of plastic bags you use.
There are also other bags you probably already have that can be reused. For example, if you have pets, you can use large kibble bags for the messy stuff and put the dry stuff directly in the bins. It really just takes a little creativity to reduce your use.
Future of KeepCool Bags and Innovation
Chester: Given that your premonition on the coming demand for reusable shopping bags was a bullseye, do you have any insights on where the next big push in environmental choices offered to consumers will be?
Barlier: Package-free goods. So much packaging is used for items that don’t even need it. Why do you have to protect a bar of soap, for example? Companies such as Lush are leading the way in this area, but it’s still a niche concept.
Also, more recycling! Zero-waste policies are going to become the norm. Recycling should be the renewable resource of the future. Too little is done today while almost anything can technically be recycled, upcycled, or reused in one way or another.
Chester: What about for KeepCool specifically—what’s on the horizon for you and your company, both in terms of where reusable bags might go next but also what your next venture or innovation to help the planet might be?
Barlier: We’re about to unveil a new product that I’m very excited about. Stay tuned for that!
In addition to our early use of PET, we are now weeks from launching, in partnership with Whole Foods, our new range of bags called ‘Out of the Woods’, using Supernatural Paper, a material made with responsibly sourced paper from FSC-certified forests. This incredible material has the look and feel of leather while also being washable, durable, non-flammable, replenishable, and 100% animal-free.
This is a guest post written by Matt Chester.
Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more.
For more quick hits in addition to posts on his blog, follow him on Twitter (@ChesterEnergy).