By Emily Hay 1 st September 2019

In the winter of 1999, something inside my brain suddenly shifted, and I decided to make my own shopping bags. I was sick of having cupboards full of plastic bags that I did not need, or could not find a use for, but was loath to simply throw away. This reluctance to throw away plastic bags may sound strange, but living on a rural property, where everything should be a resource, and not having any rubbish removal services (being too far from the nearest town), meant all rubbish had to be ferried to the nearest tip by car. It just seemed crazy to throw great wads of plastic away.

With my background in fashion design & patternmaking, I had always thought that plastic bags, although incredibly flimsy, were an efficient design and could be reinvented into being made from fabric. With a roll of pale green nylon parachute silk, left over from a previous business making up designer tracksuits, I made the first four bags, one of which I am holding in the photo below on the left, with a lilac one on the right, each holding twelve litres of milk. These were taken at my first photo shoot in 2003 – yes, that is one of the first four samples (even if it does look at bit like a plastic bag). It has twelve litres of milk in it, after all. What plastic bag could hold that weight without breaking?

The other photo (below) is of me, taken in January 2019, to mark the 18 th anniversary of Ecosilk Bags. I am holding two of the original bags, made in 1999. As you can see, they have aged well (not so sure about how well I have aged). I still use them, to this day. They look pretty rough up close, with stains and minor tears, but will still hold whatever I put in
them, which is usually a lot.

A summary of the last twenty years…

To date, I have sold over 560,000 Ecosilk Bags. When multiplied by a thousand, which is a conservative estimate of how many times the bags can beused, I will have eliminated approximately 55 million bags from the environment (counting past, present and future projections based on sales so far). I am extremely pleased with this figure.

I have experienced great highs, such as providing bags for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Los Angeles in 2008, and subsequently for Sydney Fashion Week the same year. Donating bags to Sea Shepherd (US) and then becoming a supplier for many years gave me great satisfaction. Charging Captain Paul Watson’s credit card was, as they say, quite surreal.

The lows were the global financial crash (GFC), which the business survived, but not without great stress, financial loss and personal defeat.

A funny story – I had not long been in business in 2002, and literally no one went to the supermarket with any reusable shopping bags, so I was always a bit anxious at the checkout with my bags, because I was conscious that packing them took longer than the streamlined packing of plastic bags. One day, there was a huge, tough looking bikie dude standing behind me in the queue, who was quietly watching me load up my bags. I was nervous about holding him up, but he suddenly turned to me and said “Aren’t you going to colour coordinate the shopping, and put all of the green vegies in the green bag, and all of the blue things into the blue bag?” Everyone laughed – it was a nice moment.

My other favourite story, albeit with a dark side, was when a customer from the UK wanted to buy a purple shopping bag for her elderly aunt. Apparently, her aunt had been mugged while out shopping, and was knocked to the ground, with her handbag, jewellery, cash and her purple Ecosilk bag all stolen. The police were able to find the culprits, and get back the handbag, jewellery and even the cash, but not the purple bag. She was very upset about this, and when her niece found out, she contacted me to get an urgent order sent to the UK. A purple bag was supplied, and everyone was happy. Possibly the thieves are still using their purple bag too.

It is worth noting that I get lots of stories of people’s bags being stolen, usually when they are in a supermarket, and they turn away from their trolley to get something off a shelf. When they turn back, the bags are gone. I take this as a kind of back handed compliment, that the bags are attractive items, and so people must keep them stored safely, or else!

It is interesting to note the shift in perceptions since 1999. Back then, plastic bag use was absolutely the norm, no one thought twice about using them – they were free, readily available and handy. Today the world, and Australians, realise that this handiness came at great cost to the environment, as has most single use plastic items. Oceans, rivers, waterways and beaches have rubbish piling up, harming wildlife, and looking disgusting. Everyone knows this now. The challenge is to keep going, to keep using alternatives to single use plastics, and find better ways to transport our shopping, hold our coffee and contain our endless bottles of water. And in the West, we do have the finance, resources and increasingly the will to address this great modern-day phenomenon. But what about in developing countries, where resources are so much less? The challenge is to keep going, to keep using alternatives to single use plastics, and find better ways to transport our shopping, hold our coffee and contain our endless bottles of water. And in the West, we do have the finance, resources and increasingly the will to address this great modern-day phenomenon. But what about in developing countries, where resources are so much less? The challenge will be to get the whole world on track with keeping the planet safe, unpolluted and single use plastic free.

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