07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"A Plastic Bag Is a Pain in the Butt"

Last week in Sao Paolo, Brazil, I heard the distinct sound of "taps" being played for the simple plastic shopping bag. Wal-Mart Brazil had invited all its suppliers to come and discuss its sustainability goals -- and sign a public agreement to match them. The pact dealt with everything from saving the Amazon forest, mostly through bans on sourcing beef and soy that come from cleared lands, to reducing phosphates in detergents (see the agreements here). It was an historic meeting that covered a lot of ground (full disclosure: I was hired to speak at the event and provide context on the greening of business globally).

But aside from the much larger and thornier Amazon-related initiatives, one announcement was both fun and indicative of the green pressures coming to bear on companies and particular products. Wal-Mart Brazil is sponsoring a nationwide campaign, in conjunction with the Brazilian government, to drastically reduce plastic bag use. The minister of the environment, Carlos Minc, was on hand to co-announce the project. Wal-Mart's own internal goal is a 50% reduction by 2013 (a larger reduction than the company's global goal, which I"ve commented was perhaps not strong enough).

The humorous national campaign includes television ads featuring the hip "Junior" (only the coolest have one name), a leader of youth-oriented NGO AfroReggae. The slogan for the campaign, "Saco E um Saco," translates roughly into "A bag is a pain in the butt" -- or at least that's what the simultaneous translators tried to convey...they seemed at a loss on how to handle it. One Portuguese executive told me that it's closer to "A bag sucks" which plays on the double use of "saco." Either way, it's a funny, yet aggressive way to get people to stop using these things.

Brazil is hardly alone in the national effort to eliminate bags. China starting taxing all shopping bags and has cut total usage 66%.

Companies are also trying many methods to get customers on board. Charging for bags is one clear signal to consumers to use fewer. British retailer Marks & Spencer recently announced an 80% drop in use at its stores after adding a small charge (IKEA and others have witnessed 80-90% drops in usage as well after charging a nickel to any customer wanting one).

Wal-Mart Brazil has experimented with refunds instead. If you don't take the bags, you get a discount off your grocery bill (so it's revenue neutral to the company and basically charges those who DO take the bag, without raising anybody's bill).

All companies should take note of this kind of coordinated effort by governments and other companies -- imagine what happens if your product, manufacturing process, or sourcing strategy ends up on the societal bad list. I"ve talked about the risk to business from these kinds of market shifts on green principles before. While we might have some guesses as to what's next (did your meat come from cleared Amazon? Do you use too much water from dry regions in your production?), it's unfortunately somewhat unpredictable where the questions might come from.

Bags are not the only products facing this kind of challenge -- it's happening to bottled water as well. But nothing compares to the coordinated global attack on plastic bags. Once your product is declared a pain in the butt, where do you go from there?

Andrew Winston is a green business strategies and the co-author of the bestseller Green to Gold. His new book, Green Recovery, explores how companies go green in hard economic times (a free excerpt is here and on the Kindle).