Coles has effectively backflipped on its decision to stop charging for reusable plastic bags in the face of mounting anger from consumer and environmental groups.
The supermarket giant faced a barrage of criticism on Wednesday when it revealed it would abandon its environmentally friendly stance and indefinitely provide its reusable bags for free.
That unpopular decision was again reversed on Thursday, when Coles managing director John Durkan announced that customers will have to start paying for them again from August 29.
Most state governments in Australia have banned thin single-use bags, or have plans to ban them. Coles had initially pledged to phase them out from July 1.
In a statement, Mr Durkan said the transition had been difficult for customers.
“We know that many customers are still finding themselves a bag or two short at the register and we want to do the right thing by them during this transition period,” he said.
“Putting our customers first is in our DNA and we must always be empathetic and responsive to their needs.
“That’s why we are extending our complimentary bag offer until Wednesday 29 August for our customers in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia. I appreciate this transition phase is taking longer than anticipated but it is absolutely the right thing to do by our customers.”
Coles’ decision on Wednesday to keep giving away the reusable bags infuriated environmental group Greenpeace, which branded it bad for the planet.
“Coles have caved in far too quickly to a small but vocal minority and there is absolutely no doubt Coles will be punished for this decision by customers who don’t want to see plastic bags littering their beaches and killing marine life,” Australia Pacific campaigner Zoe Deans told ABC.
Australian shoppers were equally outraged by the decision, with the hashtag #BoycottColes quickly gaining momentum.
.@Coles as a major Australian supermarket your decision to continue giving out free plastic bags is irresponsible & makes a mockery of your ‘commitment’ to sustainability. Until you reverse this decision I’ve taken my business elsewhere #auspol @walabor #boycottcoles
— Senator Sue Lines (@linessue) August 1, 2018
Right now: @Coles management scrambling to urgent meetings after realising
1. How badly they screwed up
2. That the vast majority of their customers actually care about the planet
— Elaine Shenton (@L_ainey) August 1, 2018
Dear @Coles, I will be shopping exclusively at @woolworths & @ALDIAustralia until you enforce your plastic-bags ban. Please keep me informed as to when your corporate spine returns so that i can start shopping with you again. #auspol
— John Wren (@JohnWren1950) August 1, 2018
The backlash comes right after the supermarket giant’s decision to release a line of ‘sponsored’ collectibles.
Many consumers questioned the purpose and environmental impact of handing out the tiny plastic products.
Melbourne comedian Christian Hull lampooned the collectibles in a video that rapidly accumulated more than two million views.
Watch the video below (warning: explicit language)
Why am I so obsessed with collecting garbage! I WANT THE ENTIRE SET!MORE VIDEOS: youtube.com/christianhull
Posted by Christian Hull on Thursday, July 26, 2018
Single-use plastic bags take years to break down, and many end up in the environment polluting oceans, rivers and beaches.
The thicker, reusable plastic bags have the potential to cause greater harm if they reach waterways.
Waste Management Association of Australia also warned that Coles’ decision would create major confusion for consumers.
“It’s just messy,” WMAA chief executive Gayle Sloan told ABC.
“The key for us, where we produce 64 million tonnes of waste annually, is to work out ways to avoid the creation of waste and this kind of flip-flopping gets really confusing for the public and it gets really confusing for industry,” she said.
Coles’ rival Woolworth has so far avoided the outrage. On Thursday, it said it remained committed to charging for reusable bags.
In a statement, a Woolworths spokeswoman said the majority of its customers had “embraced the move to a more sustainable way of shopping”.
“Our focus is on continuing to help all our customers form new and sustainable habits,” it said, adding that Woolworths would continue to reward customers who brought their own bags.
Woolworths polled 12,500 customers about the single-use plastic bag ban in May. It found almost 75 per cent supported the move to reusable bags, while less than 15 per cent were opposed to it.