Household innovations: Putting your money where your milk is

April 27, 2011 at 1:35 am 4 comments

 By Leonie Shanks

I have a theory that it was my parents who first came up with the phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’ Not content with being compost and allotment aficionados (long before composts and allotments were in vogue), they have always taken a slightly fanatical approach to environmentally friendly living. Not going to throw that empty yoghurt pot away are you? Why not use it instead for storing paper clips and drawing pins? No need to buy gift tags for the Christmas presents – that would just be reckless extravagance, when you can cut up last year’s Christmas cards instead. I recall a particularly unpleasant episode when, at the age of seven, my Mum sent me to school with 25 used milk cartons brimming with jelly beans and liquorice allsorts and decorated with old wallpaper (message to Alec Patton: some households DO contain ubiquitous milk cartons!). Proudly flourishing these gifts as evidence of my Mum’s superiority to the other Mums, I was dismayed to find that most of my classmates refused to eat the sweets on the grounds that the containers still bore the distinctive whiff of sour milk, and I gained a set of unwanted nicknames that day that I was unable to shake off until secondary school.

It was perhaps due to my subliminal memories of this unfortunate incident that I was so delighted to discover a fantastic alternative to the plastic milk bottle or cardboard carton sitting in my parents’ fridge this Easter. It doesn’t need much explaining, but just in case – it’s a milk bag that can be inserted into a re-usable jug specially designed for easy poring. This bag drastically reduces unwieldy packaging (by 75%, in fact), can be  transported more efficiently, and allows milk to be frozen. The cheaper cost of manufacturing and transporting the bags therefore means that they can be sold for less: a two-litre bag is 6p cheaper than its cardboard-bound counterpart. So consumers are happy, supermarkets are happy, the environment is happy, and seven-year-olds with Make-and-Do Mums are spared from potential humiliation.  Everybody’s happy, right? 

 Well, no, actually. Milk bags are such an obviously good idea that you really have to wonder why they’ve only been introduced to British supermarkets relatively recently – Sainsbury’s last year became the first major British supermarket to announce that they would be rolling out eco-friendly milk bags and jugs across their entire product range. Estimating that they would be able to save 1400 tons of packaging per year through the popularisation of the milk bag, Sainsbury’s heralded it as “the biggest change to occur to the nation’s shopping habits for at least a decade.” However, this rather optimistic statement seems a little premature in light of the fact that Waitrose, who were actually the first supermarket to try out this product back in 2007, were quietly forced to shelve it in early 2010 due to ‘poor sales.’ It seems likely that this failure was not so much due to the weakness of the product, but in large part due to the simple fact that bringing about behaviour change is often much more challenging than innovation itself. People are after all irrational beings, and when it comes to milk – a staple of the British diet (where would we be without our morning cereal and cups of tea?) – it’s probable that bags as opposed to bottles represent, for many people, too much of a disruption to familiar and cherished routines. That said, milk bags have apparently being selling at a steady rate since their nationwide launch in Sainsbury’s last August, but it’s worth noting that this moderate commercial success has been driven by a multi-million pound campaign that included a dedicated ‘education programme,’ and the giving away of tens of thousands of free jugs.

 In countries such as Poland, China, India and Canada, milk bags have been in use for many years, where they have enjoyed widespread popularity – in Canada, for example, more than 60% of milk is purchased in milk bag form. This brings two questions to mind: firstly, how many other innovative ideas might we gather from paying attention to the simple intricacies of other countries’ and cultures’ ways of life? And secondly, is there something intrinsic to ‘being British’ that makes us resistant to certain forms of innovation, and in what ways do traditions, debates and narratives around national identity feed into, cross-sect and interfere with the drive to innovate?

In any case, I hope that anyone reading this blog post will be convinced of the merits of the milk bag over the milk bottle. It really does make a lot of sense. But then again, leaders and innovators would do well to remember that common sense is not the only thing that motivates and moves people.


Entry filed under: Just for fun.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  April 27, 2011 at 9:02 am

    It’s not milk cartons that aren’t ubiquitous, it’s pallets! I’m now dying to know whether you have any pallet-based furniture in the Shanks home, and whether your parents can advise me on the pallet-to-windowbox journey.

    It struck me as I was reading your post that milk cartons are an innovation in their own right. It wasn’t very long ago that everyone had their milk delivered in reusable glass bottles (and some people still do).

  • 2. marthiemoo  |  May 1, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    I am proud to say that I was one of the testpigs when Jugit started trialling the bags/jug combo through Waitrose (I even recommended that they come in a variety of colours, along with about a billion other people). They do have one drawback, which is that the bag-piercing mechanism isn’t entirely foolproof and, as a fool, I tend to get milk everywhere when using them. But I don’t let that stop me.

  • 3. kathrynrosetyler  |  May 4, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    That is fascinating. I know someone who works in the Sainsbury communications department. I wonder if their staff use milk bags.

  • 4. Love food, hate waste? « Disciplined Innovation  |  May 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    […] home composting (they’d love my wormery!).  Regular followers of the blog will know that packaging is something we care about, and want to […]


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