How FreshDirect customers took reusable bags and made them fashionable

This article is part of a series of exams Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to address issues facing the fashion industry.

Before the pandemic started, leather was a go-to material for bag designer Shelley Parker. But when life got away during the lockdowns, Ms. Parker, 54, couldn’t stand the idea of ​​buying it online. “When I buy leather,” he said, “I touch it, I feel it.” I can smell it.”

As her leather supply ran out in 2020, Ms. Parker began experimenting with a medium that by then had become more abundant in her Queens apartment: the colorful plastic bags used to deliver FreshDirect groceries, which feature the company’s logo surrounded by produce.

“The colors, the patterns, the small text, I like it all,” said Ms. Parker, assistant professor in the Department of Accessory Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and designer of the Riveting line of accessories. “Just talk to me.”

Ms. Parker started by cutting FreshDirect bags into pieces. From these scraps, she made a handful of small bags and purses using techniques such as braiding, macrame and sashiko, a form of Japanese embroidery. “I’m a FreshDirect artist,” said Ms. Parker, which sells some of the wallets for $899 on its website. “I didn’t want to be, but the bags called to me.”

As more people turned to grocery delivery during the pandemic, others also began using FreshDirect bags as a material for design projects.

Colleen Paeff, 54, a children’s book author, used some of the bags to extend a short curtain in her Brooklyn home. “I realized that if I had more, I could have made the entire curtain out of FreshDirect bags,” she said.

After Bailey Constas, 29, used them as packing material when she moved from Brooklyn to Denver, she cut the bags into pieces that she painted and used as covers for handmade magazines, which she has planned to sell at local craft fairs. “I just let the material speak to me,” said Ms. Constas, an artist and digital consultant, said of the FreshDirect bags.

FreshDirect was founded in 2002 in Queens, and since then its delivery footprint has grown to include about 21 counties in the tri-state area. About 150,000 bags are now used to deliver groceries each week, said John MacDonald, the company’s director of marketing. For many years the bags could be returned to FreshDirect, which would recycle some. But the company ended that policy in 2020, leaving many people with more bags than they knew what to do with.

It wasn’t long after FreshDirect stopped returning the bags that Alex Dabagh, whose New York company Anybag uses plastic bags to make handbags, heard from people looking to unload their stash. “They’re reusable, but, you know, it’s like there’s a lot of stuff,” he said.

“I started getting phone calls and emails from people saying, ‘Hey, we have all these FreshDirect bags piled up in our house, in my apartment, in my kitchen. I have no more space for them,” Mr. Dabagh, 40, added.

He started collecting bags from FreshDirect and turned four into a $133 Anybag. Since then Mr. Dabagh has acquired 300 to 400 more FreshDirect bags, which she plans to use as material for a future bag collection.

FreshDirect’s bags are designed by its marketing team, who select and photograph the products featured in them. New designs are introduced seasonally to reflect the types of fruit and vegetables that may be inside the bags when they arrive at customers’ doors. (Spoiler alert: Summer 2023 is all about corn.) “The bags express a little bit of the brand’s personality,” said Mr. FreshDirect’s MacDonald said.

Although made from recycled plastic, the bags “are not easily recycled,” said Vincent Gragnani, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Sanitation. Mr. MacDonald said one of the reasons FreshDirect stopped taking back its bags was that the recycling process was inefficient and created waste. “We don’t want to bring the bags back and then reuse them, because that’s not something we want to do,” he added, noting that the company is “exploring a bunch of different things” it could do. with the bags that people don’t want.

Last year, FreshDirect partnered with organizations that will accept their customers’ bags as donations. These organizations include the Brooklyn Book Bodega, which uses the bags to distribute books to children, teenagers and schools, and The Red Door Place, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Manhattan that uses the bags to distribute groceries.

“Trying to buy bags online would have taken a huge chunk out of our already tight budget,” said Teresa Concepción, executive director of The Red Door Place. “Honestly, the bags have made a difference,” she said.

While people like Ms. While Concepcion sees benefit in the abundance of FreshDirect bags, others like Theda Sandiford, 52, an artist and senior vice president of merchandising and digital at Def Jam Records, can’t look at the bags without being reminded of the pandemic during which they proliferated, and the pain and the stress it has caused. To help process these feelings, Ms. Sandiford cut up FreshDirect bags she had collected from the trash room of her apartment building in Jersey City, NJ, and wove the pieces through shopping carts to create artwork for a series which he called Emotional Baggage Carts.

“I’m an emotional empath and I needed to put it somewhere because I wasn’t wearing it,” said Ms. Sandiford said. The first cart he made with FreshDirect bags, called “Wide Load,” now belongs to the Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora in Brooklyn. He displayed other carts earlier this month at the Satellite Art Show in Miami Beach, Florida. On his website, a cart he made from FreshDirect bags is for sale for $15,000.

Janet Linville, 65, said she also hated seeing the bags because the sight of them reminded her of the millions of years it would take for their plastic material to fully decompose. Perhaps the only thing he hated to see more, he added, was goose poop littering a lawn near his Roosevelt Island home where he would go to read on warmer days. Tired of washing blankets, she tore up some FreshDirect bags and sewed the pieces together to create a plastic tarp to lie on.

Ms. Linville, a retired Metropolitan Opera dressmaker, was so pleased with the result that she also considered using the bags to make a hat. “I’m sure I could,” he said. “But I don’t know if I could go there wearing a FreshDirect hat.”

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