One Bag at a Time: Lisa Foster Changes Grocery Store Expectations


Lisa Foster, a former high school English teacher in Los Angeles, was living in Australia in 2005 (while her husband worked on a film), when she had a revelation at the check-out register.

Instead of asking the typical American grocery store phrase, “Paper or plastic?” the clerk asked, “Would you like a bag?”

Foster looked at the woman in line in front of her, carrying her own reusable grocery bag and the lady behind her, with an armful of them. She realized that she was supposed to say, “Oh, I have my own.”

She wondered to herself: what’s the deal with these bags?

She went home and did some research. Five years ago, no one brought their own bags to the grocery store, but the government did a public awareness campaign. Analogously, in 2002 in Ireland, the tourist trade was hurting because plastic bags were sarcastically known as the “new national flower.” The Irish government imposed a tax on every disposable bag. Politically, Australia could not impose a tax, but they did their own public awareness campaign which proved very effective. Foster recognized that the grocery stores had shifted their perspective: they’d still carry paper and plastic bags, but they would not offer them.

“Expectation is extraordinarily powerful,” she says. “Like looking at kids in the classroom to quiet down; expecting them to quiet with a stare is much more powerful than shouting at them.”

Before she returned to Los Angeles, Foster did further research. She always thought that paper bags were the way to go because they can be more easily recycled. But she found that it takes 50 percent more emissions of global warming gases to make paper bags than plastic bags, and 20 percent of all paper bags are recycled – the rest just end up in landfills.

Upon her return to Los Angeles in June of 2005, Foster told her friends, “We have to change this.” And a friend agreed that she had to do it.

She was even more motivated when she found out that eight to ten percent of the U.S. oil supply goes to making plastic bags.

“We will kill and die for petroleum, but once we make it into plastic, we just throw it away,” she says. So she contacted a Chinese factory where a reusable bag she had bought in Australia had been manufactured, and ordered 8,000 bags to be stored in her living room. She set up her own small business, 1bagatatime. She made calls to stores and potential buyers during her free period in the high school parking lot.

“I called stores and offered them the bags for 95 cents each, plus free shipping if they ordered before November 1.” She promised her husband she wouldn’t lose money – and she was hoping to get these mounds of bags out of her living room as soon as possible.

In March 2006, she left her teaching post (after eight years) to pursue her business venture.  Upon her leaving, the headmaster of the high school connected her with the chairman of the board at Ralph’s. By the end of 2006, she sold 200,000 bags to Ralph’s and Vitamin College.

Since she started, she has sold over 10 million bags. But as her business grows, she stays committed to her conscious intentions; by the third year of business – as the biggest buyer of the Chinese factory two hours outside of Shanghai – she demanded fair wages and made sure they did not higher children. When she recruited Verite to check on the factory, the wife of the factory owner who was also the bookkeeper, showed a book with scribbles and numbers. Since then, they have instated proper accounting techniques (pay slips), protective smocks, name tags, and a formal complaint system that has been mutually beneficial.

“The factory owners actually thanked me, because the migrant workforce has become more stable, and the workers don’t leave because they know they are getting a good deal.”

She says that bags purported to be made out of recycled material are not possible, since they would be poor quality and could not be dyed. However, she reasons that each bag she sells (still made out of plastic), require the resources of 11 plastic bags, but when consumers use and reuse them, they replace 1,000 bags. She says her bags appeal to U.S. consumers because of their trendy designs, colors, and thoughtful text.

Next month 1bagatatime will take part in the Portraits of Hope project in Santa Monica. For this project, blind and hospitalized children will paint art panels to mount on the Santa Monica beach lifeguard stations. 1bagatatime will use Portraits of Hope art on a messenger style bag and donate a percentage of proceeds.

Other than Foster’s success of launching a viable business catered to eco-friendly consciousness, what I find most compelling is that Foster’s personal career trajectory challenges the traditional linear thinking that the modern college-educated woman would do best to find her calling in her early 20’s and stick with it until retirement. Foster pursued her PhD in English literature for nine years, taught high school for eight years, and at a time when her daughters are out of the nest, she struck out on her own entrepreneurial venture. With 1bagatatime, Foster found a niche that became an outlet for her wisdom, independent thinking, and ethics.