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Lately, customers have been talking about Sautter’s for another reason than just their premium produce and solid reputation, though. Oddly enough, they’ve been talking about their plastic grocery bags. Grocery stores have legendarily tight profit margins, and small businesses have even less room to spend unnecessarily, but Sautter’s took the leap to replace their traditional plastic produce and grocery bags with far more environmentally friendly biodegradable bags.
While markets of any size could implement this change, it’s not without additional expenses and clearly not a philanthropic move. It also meets two of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (12, Responsible Consumption, and 14, Life Below Water), but we doubted that was the motivation. So, to learn more about how this sustainable innovation came about, we went to co-owner David Sautter to learn more about how this sustainable initiative actually came about.
The first question we had to ask him was, “Why?” While we personally support sustainable innovation, this change has been quietly incorporated in the day-to-day workings of the store and hasn’t seen any paid marketing efforts. It’s hard to imagine a significant return on investment. The Toledo area doesn’t, at this time, have any plastic bag bans or mandatory fees in effect, either. When we inquired how they’re quantifying a return on this investment, Mr. Sautter responded, “[There’s] no way to quantify a return, that wasn’t the intent. We’re making a transition. This is the reality.”
Sourcing the plastic bags was actually the easy part. Sally Hobbib Rumman has been a long time customer of Sautter’s Market, and her children even worked there part-time while in school. She also happens to be a local small-business owner who acts as the U.S. arm of BioFutura, a New Zealand based company which produces a number of biodegradable alternatives to traditionally plastic based disposable products for the food and grocery industries. The BioFutura bags are completely compostable within 80 days at an industrial site (such as a landfill) and 180 days in home compost. They’re composed of cornstarch polylactic acid (PLA) and polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), and the residue formed by the breakdown of these products is non-toxic and therefore not dangerous to marine life or land-life2. One major catch is they do require temperature controlled storage since heat speed up the material breakdown, but Sautter’s were prepared for that condition.
Acquiring the bags was where things got difficult – they had decided to take the leap in 2020, as supply chains were crumbling due to the global pandemic. The bags are actually produced in China, which is a fair distance to travel with all the associated impacts of long distance shipping, but on par with many plastic bag suppliers. The initial problem in 2020 was getting anything directly from China since there weren’t stockpiles to order from in the U.S. Bags could take 5 months or more to be received. This meant initial orders had to be for the better part of a year’s worth of bags, requiring a significant upfront investment and considerable (temperature controlled!) storage. it was all a leap of faith when they didn’t know initially how well the bags would hold up in their storage facilities or how well they’d perform in local, real-world conditions.
Fortunately, the bags not only held up well in storage, they performed almost nearly as well as their previous, traditional plastic counterparts. While the produce bags are slightly harder to separate than the previous style, it’s only a slight difference, and while plastic grocery bags hold slightly more weight than the new biodegradable ones, it’s been an easy enough adjustment. Overall, the loss in performance has been minor enough to not be a concern and these days they can place orders 3 months at a time instead, making the whole process far more manageable.
This was a lot of effort to go to for a small business with no notable return on investment. So what was the inspiration? David Sautter noted that they are looking to be ahead of the curve, to make the transition on their own terms rather than have to play catch-up. When bag bans, such as seen in Chicago (where Sautter lived for a time), do make their way into the Toledo area, they’ll already have made the transition, but that wasn’t the full motivation. Sautter’s is a family-owned and oriented specialty market which has been passed down from generation to generation. David Sautter has two young daughters and he’s concerned about their future and wants to do whatever is in his power to contribute to a better tomorrow for them. “In our line of work, everything comes wrapped in plastic,” he says, “we can’t avoid it, but we have a plastic problem.”
When you step back and consider it in that light, it fits the business model. With all their respect for past generations, they are concerned about the legacy being left to future generations, too. Sautter’s has been around for a 100 years, and they want to be around for 100 more. Reducing plastic waste is part of that.
“If it had been $20 per bag or some such,” Sautter said, “it wouldn’t have been financially feasible, and this does still add up, but this was a minimal increase. Benefits [far] outweigh the drawbacks.” This initial cost outlay with all its associated difficulties, was a short-term hit to the bottom line, but the cost long-term is a minimal increase of about $0.04 per bag.
And, as mentioned, customers have been talking, whether that was the goal or not – none of the interviewers are residents of Sylvania, so we weren’t personally aware of the change. It was in conversations with people who are shopping there, people who are what we’d refer to as “middle greens” – those folks who prefer for sustainable products but don’t make it an absolute requirement of purchase – that the new bags at Sautter’s came up. That kind of word-of-mouth talk can’t be dismissed for its positive business impact. That kind of social capital is what Sautter’s reputation is built on.
Sautter’s Market’s transition to biodegradable bags is a good demonstration of how implementing sustainable business practices requires time and money above traditional practices, even when they’re worthwhile. It’s also not a move that may display immediate effects or a large, traditionally quantifiable return on investment. It takes time, patience, and sometimes a more complicated commerce process. But, as Mr. Sautter says, “we have a plastic problem.” Our society produces over 380 million tons of plastic every year, and some reports indicate that up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes – utilized for just a few moments, but on the planet for at least several hundred years3. “Biodegradable” isn’t a regulated term, but it implies that the decomposition happens in weeks to months, as the BioFutura bags do.
There are, in fact, multiple benefits to society to utilizing biodegradable bags/products. Besides the more rapid decomposition rate, producing them is generally a less energy intensive process and involves less use of fossil fuels. It’s also an issue of just plain litter as many plastic bag bans are motivated by the persistent problem of bags taking flight in the open air and gathering up on the first barrier they encounter, leaving random bags fluttering like lost white flags in trees and on fences – or, more hazardously, clogging up storm drains and working their way into water treatment plants. Sautter’s transition to a biodegradable type bag is a good example of the “triple bottom line”, which is about balancing business practices between the effects to people, planet, and profit, not just the traditional, singular bottom line of profit alone. As Mr. Sautter puts it, “At the end of the day, as a business, you have to do what your values are.” He’d love to see more businesses embracing the idea, as would we – the more that do so, the more attainable such innovations become.
Sautter’s is a family market, a small, local-business that values community longevity and, at the end of the day, they view this transition as part of that. It’s one more plank in the bridge we’re all building toward the future, the one to a more a sustainable future. “Do your part and hopefully, collectively, we’ll all get there,” David Sautter said, and we couldn’t agree more.
David Sautter, Co-Owner
Sautter’s Market is a Toledo-area grocery store that’s in its fourth generation of the Sautter family. Founded in 1927, they strongly value a sense of community and make sure to support other local small businesses by selling locally made products in-store – both their produce and meat are sourced locally, with produce coming from farms in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana and meat being not only local, but butchered on-site. They also carry national brands to stay competitive and meet consumer demands1. They pack a punch for a local business, employing 133 people across two locations and reportedly bringing in around $27 million in annual revenue.